Turkey steps up soft power efforts, neglecting domestic issues

As Turkey struggles with the pandemic, inflation, employment, and democracy, it is extending the hand of assistance far and wide outside it's borders. [EPA - EFE / TURKISH PRESIDENT PRESS OFFICE H]

Turkey is one of a handful of countries using charity and aid to raise its international profile and extend its influence to other countries, particularly in the Western Balkans, while struggling at home with poverty, lack of jobs, rising inflation, and increasingly authoritarian rule.

According to data published in an article by Daily Sabah, a pro-government daily, Turkey supplied aid to more than 14 international organisations working on alleviating the damage of the pandemic. In addition, it has provided assistance in various formats to more than 131 countries, from Senegal to Norway and Montenegro, Spain, and China.

The aid handed out was diverse and included ventilators, PPE equipment, COVID diagnostic kits, money, entire hospitals, and new homes for earthquake victims.

Turkey has also doled out vaccines to around 20 countries, including most Western Balkan and several African states. The country is now developing Turkovac, which will likely be pushed out to those that have failed to get their hands on Western vaccines.

According to the Daily Sabah, “Turkey had raised its profile as a generous nation through its humanitarian efforts over the past two decades.”

In addition to its humanitarian efforts, Turkey has worked hard to position itself as a leading trade partner in southeastern Europe, and beyond.

At the end of December, the Turkish parliamentary speaker Mustafa Sentop announced that 600 Turkish companies operate in Albania, employing more than 15,000 people. He added that his country had invested some $3.5 billion in Albania while reaffirming its support for Tirana’s EU accession.

So close is the relationship between Ankara and Tirana that some refer to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the Sultan, and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, as the Pasha, a reference to Albania’s past as part of the Ottoman Empire.

But what is the cost?

French MEP Julie Lechanteux noted in a parliamentary question in May 2020 that Turkey “took advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to appear more effective and united vis-a-vis the countries of the Balkans with a medical aid diplomacy intended to improve its image in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire and to increase its influence in the region.”

She continued that the operation appears to be part of a political strategy that “openly clashes with European interests.” “Given that Turkey is still officially an EU candidate country, what is the Commission’s position concerning Turkish influence in the Balkans?” her question concluded.

EU neighbourhood and enlargement chief Oliver Varhelyi replied that “fostering cooperation and good neighbourly relations between EU countries, Western Balkan partners and Turkey is an important element for stability on the European continent.”

Following the Western Balkans’ seemingly never-ending stay in the enlargement waiting room, Turkey is one of several countries that have moved to cement their influence in the region.

Serbia, backed by Moscow, but also Russia, China, and Turkey have all used various kinds of diplomacy, including infrastructural, financial, trade, medical, and mediatory, to fill the EU-shaped void.

Some analysts say that Erdogan fosters dreams of being a regional power-broker, mainly due to his involvement and close relationships with leaders of Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ankara also announced that it would lobby for Kosovo’s independence while signing secret agreements to deport alleged “Gulenists” from the country and neighbouring Albania. These cases, involving more than 100 people, were described by United Nations rapporteurs as “extraterritorial abductions”, “forcible returns”, and “enforced disappearances”.

Education in the spotlight

Erdogan, who blames 2016’s failed coup d’etat on the followers of exiled educator and cleric Fethullah Gulen, has rounded up thousands of alleged followers, imprisoning many and disappearing others.

It is these extraterritorial abductions that many views as one of the most sinister consequences of Turkey’s influence. Furthermore, on official visits, Turkish officials have made it clear they expect states to cooperate in the Gulen crackdown if they want to enjoy mutually beneficial continuing relationships.

This ‘crackdown’ has also included the mass closures of Turkish schools not aligned with the state in various Balkan countries. In Albania, the Turkish government applied pressure to shut down schools allegedly linked to the Gulen movement, and police raided some while students were present and without a warrant.

Meanwhile, the state-affiliated Maarif Foundation has more than 353 schools in 67 countries worldwide.

The foundation was at the centre of controversy in May 2021 when the Turkish government increased its funding by 300%, pushing its annual budget over €140 million, at a time when the domestic education system was suffering.

Head of the Union of Labourers in Education and Science, Orhan Yildirim, told Turkish daily Cumhuriyet that this means many students will not meet their learning goals.

“All the financial resources spared for the Maarif Foundation mean that the needs of millions of families and students who continue their lives in economic hardship will be transferred elsewhere.”

The COVID catastrophe

In terms of COVID-19, Turkey has some of the highest vaccination rates in the Balkans but it has not fared well in the pandemic. The government came under sharp criticism for prioritising political and economic issues over public health.

The government has also been repeatedly accused of manipulating statistics and covering up the real impact of the pandemic.

Now the country is grappling with soaring inflation, currently at 36%, and economists suggest the figures could reach 50% by spring.

Meanwhile in Tirana, a black marble monument sits amid the lake park, paying tribute to the over 2,000 people killed in the failed Turkish coup. Replaced once due to vandalism, it is a stark demonstration of just how much power Turkey wields in its former territory.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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