Middle East’s troubles spill over to the Balkans
The Balkan region has become an area of interest for a wide array of foreign players, from China to the US and from Europe to Russia. Since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, it is also a region of priority for Turkey, which has emerged as a significant player in the last two decades with its increasing economic and political influence.
From Ankara’s perspective, the Balkan countries are not only significant due to the political, economic and geographical aspects, but also due to historical, cultural and humanitarian ties. However, despite its importance, the political developments in the Balkan Peninsula do not occupy the first few pages of Turkish newspapers, which are dominated by issues related to the EU, the Middle East and the US. However, the latest developments have proven that the Balkan region is not immune to the spillover effects of the Middle East’s conflicts.
American President Donald Trump this month announced that Serbia and Kosovo had agreed to normalize economic ties with Israel as part of US-brokered talks. After two days of meetings with Trump administration officials, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed separate agreements with the US, in which Serbia agreed to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and Kosovo agreed to normalize relations and establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Hailing the move and expecting further movement from Pristina, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: “I welcome the agreement with Kosovo to be the first Muslim state to open an embassy in Jerusalem. Serbia will be the first country to open an embassy in Jerusalem — following the historic breakthrough with the United Arab Emirates.”
Following these announcements, Ankara immediately reacted. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a written statement expressing its deep concern over both Serbia and Kosovo’s decisions. Ankara called on Kosovo to respect the law and to avoid steps that could prevent it from being recognized by other countries in the future. The ministry also pointed out that Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and had supported the country in its attempts to be recognized by the international community.
Kosovar President Hashim Thaci on Sunday paid a visit to Istanbul, where he met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. No details of the meeting have been provided so far. Thaci posted on Twitter: “Thankful to President (Erdogan) for the warm hospitality and productive conversation on all issues of mutual interest, including bilateral cooperation, regional and global issues. Our two nations enjoy friendly relations and will further strengthen the strategic partnership.”
The EU shared the same concerns as Turkey and is not happy with the US-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo. EU-facilitated negotiations between the two countries began in 2011 but stalled in November 2018 and only resumed this summer after a parallel US negotiating effort began. European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said: “There is no EU member state with an embassy in Jerusalem,” adding that the decisions of Serbia and Kosovo to apparently open embassies in Jerusalem constitute “a matter of great concern and regret.” Brussels urged both countries to align their foreign policy stances with the common EU position concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In the meantime, according to media reports, Serbia will not relocate its embassy to Jerusalem if Israel recognizes Kosovo.
Turkey’s relationship with Serbia has had its ups and downs over the years, including in 2013, when Erdogan said in a speech: “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo.” However, in the past few years, Turkey and Serbia have enjoyed full diplomatic relations, as the latter considers a stable Turkey to be vital for the Balkan region. Likewise, Erdogan, who visited Belgrade in October last year, has described Serbia as “a key country for peace and stability in the Balkans,” saying that cooperation with Serbia had reached an “ideal” level.
In February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Montenegro as part of efforts to increase Turkey’s involvement in the Balkans. During his visit, Ankara and Podgorica announced plans to boost diplomatic, defense and economic relations. Meanwhile, the Albanian parliament in July passed a deal signed with Ankara to improve defense and economic cooperation. In fact, most Balkan countries have appeared determined to deepen their defense links with Turkey in recent years.
Turkey has also played a significant role in promoting Balkan countries’ involvement in NATO, including supporting Macedonia’s successful bid for membership of the alliance. Since 1995, Ankara has taken part in all NATO operations in the Balkans and has dispatched its servicemen to serve with international security forces in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Most Balkan countries have appeared determined to deepen their defense links with Turkey in recent years.
In addition to the bilateral dimension, it is significant to add an international aspect. Russia takes a particularly strong and active interest in this region. Despite Turkey’s increasing cooperation with Moscow in the Middle East, there isn’t yet any coordination between the two in the Balkans. However, given the friction in Turkish-US ties and Washington’s intentions to boost its military presence in the Balkans, particularly in Greece, Russia may appear to be an actor Ankara might like to cooperate with. The US already has four military bases in Bulgaria and elements of the US missile defense shield are deployed in Romania. Unlike Washington, Russia has not deployed any troops to the region.
Even though the conflicts of the Middle East spill over its borders, the Balkan region seems to have so far remained outside of the scope given the Russian and American involvement in the region.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz