Turkey uses economic clout to gain Balkan foothold
Monday, March 14, 2011; 12:01 AM
NOVI PAZAR, Serbia -- The minarets and Turkish coffeehouses in this southern Serbian town are reminders of the Muslim empire that once shook Europe's foundations by pushing armies all the way to the gates of Vienna.
Now Turkey - the modern state that replaced the Ottoman empire - is staging a comeback. Turkey's fast-growing economic clout is allowing it into Europe through the back door, even as its dream of joining the continent through the path of EU membership founders.
Turkey's trade with the Balkan countries increased to $17.7 billion in 2008 from about $3 billion in 2000. Turkey's companies have built the largest university campus in the Balkans, in a suburb of Sarajevo, Bosnia. And its banks provided 85 percent of loans for building a highway through Serbia for Turkish transit of goods to the EU.
On a 2009 trip to Bosnia, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu explicitly linked his nation's Balkan strategy to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region between the 14th and early 20th centuries.
"The Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were success stories. Now we have to reinvent this."
"Turkey," he declared triumphantly, "is back."
Many Muslims in the Balkans welcome Turkey's growing influence. Avdija Salkovic, a 25-year-old student, has spent his whole life in Novi Pazar but considers Turkey his motherland.
"Our feelings toward Turkey have always been the same," said Salkovic, sipping strong black tea in a smoky cafe in the shadows of a mosque in this predominantly Muslim town. "The difference is that Turkey is back to its historic lands, and is finally looking at us."
Those feelings of kinship are strong in Turkey as well. Many Turks trace their roots to the Balkans and still have relatives living in the region, a legacy of Ottoman days. A fascination for one another's popular culture - from music to soap operas - strengthens the affinity.
But non-Muslims, especially in Orthodox Christian Serbia and Bulgaria, view the Turkish inroads with growing alarm and suspicion. Turkey's on a mission to establish "hegemonic control" over the Balkans, warns Bulgarian political scientist Ognyan Minchev.
The EU and U.S., too, are increasingly wary of Turkey's growing clout, particularly in places like Bosnia, Serbia and Albania, which like Turkey itself are stuck in the limbo of a snail-paced EU membership process. Washington, while recognizing Turkey's value as a go-between with Muslim communities, is loath to share influence in a region where it has strong strategic interests.
In place of distant European dreams, Turkey is offering an immediate embrace. And as Ankara also courts hardline regimes like Syria and Iran, some in the West fear its growing leadership in the Balkans could complicate EU attempts to instill Western democratic and financial standards here.