Friday, December 2, 2022

Stalled Western Balkan enlargement and does Turkey have anything to do with it?

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Diplomat Magazine
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By Javid Ibad

Western Balkan enlargement is one of the hot issues on Brussels’ agenda. While Montenegro and Serbia have been negotiating for a while, they got kickstarted for Albania and North Macedonia very recently. Bosnia and Herzegovina has the candidate status and Kosovo, as a partially recognized state, is a potential candidate. Nonetheless, from what we observe, the process lacks any substantial progress, and the accession of the Western Balkans into the EU retains a protracted nature. The reasons for the stalled advancement vary. On the one hand, indeed, the EU was not able to accentuate the Western Balkan enlargement as a top item on its to-do list due to the endless stream of crises (Recession in 2008-09, Euro in 2011-12, Crimea in 2014, Refugees in 2015-16, Coronavirus in 2020-22, and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war). On the other hand, the EU and the candidate states had hardship in consolidating their political will to accelerate the accession.

Over the last few years, Western Balkan enlargement suffered heavy blows in multiple directions. First, in 2019, France blocked the start of accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia by hindering countless efforts of Zoran Zaev’s administration to resolve the naming issue with the Hellenic Republic. While Greece and North Macedonia reached a solution, consequently, Bulgaria vetoed accession citing disagreements over history and other sociocultural matters. Bilateral relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia turned into a rollercoaster. On the one hand, they have achieved some progress by analyzing the actual roots of medieval monarchs. On the other hand, though, the progressive centrist Bulgarian government led by the Harvard graduate Kirill Petkov collapsed facing a no-confidence vote, partly because of “compromises” with North Macedonia on cultural and historical matters.

The situation in other countries on the agenda is tense as well. In Bosnia & Herzegovina, political clashes between constituencies are escalating, and Republika Srpska is deploying increasingly separatist rhetoric. Especially since the Russo-Ukrainian war, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, takes an openly pro-Russian stance by jeopardizing stability within the region. Peace talks between Serbia and Kosovo are deadlocked, with no tangible progress seen nearby. President Vucic also flirts with pro-Russian sentiments, although in a much subtler manner than Dodik. Montenegro’s newly appointed PM, Dritaz Abazovic, was recently defeated in a no-confidence vote. He accused the political influence of Montenegrin organized crime of this outcome.

Bearing in mind the ongoing socio-political developments in Western Balkans, we can see that the Western Balkan EU enlargement agenda has stalled both because of the endless stream of crises within the EU (supply-side) and internal political developments of Western Balkan states themselves (demand-side). It is clear that, in current realities, the EU is not ready to accept new members. Considering the troubles that consensus-based decision-making brings to the table (Hungary and Poland are good examples), the EU has to reform itself if it wants to function with 30+ members (we should not forget about Eastern Partnership members). Moreover, acknowledging that not all incumbents of the region are committed to building sustainable democratic governance, they seem receptive to negotiations in being a part of alternative regional cooperation and/or security architecture (please note that most of the Western Balkans are NATO members).

While envisioning alternatives for regional cooperation, most analysts and pundits draw examples from Russia and China. However, some other actors are rising on the horizon. In its post-imperial history, Turkey avoided power projection in its neighborhood by sticking to Ataturk’s foreign policy doctrine of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” It, however, started to change in the 90s during Turgut Ozal’s presidency. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey endorsed close relations with the Turkic-speaking post-Soviet states of Azerbaijan and Central Asian “Stans” (except for Tajikistan). Ozal’s premature death in 1993 halted this process. At that moment, the world started hearing about the escalation of ethno-religious conflicts in former Yugoslavia. The acute need of Yugoslavs (especially Bosnians and later Kosovan Albanians) for humanitarian aid opened a new window of opportunities for growing Turkish influence.

Over the last three decades, Turkey significantly expanded its activities within the Balkans and gained vital allies in the face of Albania, Bosnia, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, which also have significant Muslim and even Turkish-speaking communities. Turkish soft power efforts were boosted since the reign of AKP from 2002 onwards. Ahmet Davutoglu, the primary architect of Turkish foreign policy doctrine, played a crucial role in these evolutions. Turkey concentrated its activities on numerous paths: cultural ties, education, media, and popular culture. TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) renovated countless Ottoman-period monuments and mosques. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and Maarif Foundation actively work on reviving educational institutions in the region. Youngsters learn Turkish or study in Turkey via the efforts of Yunus Emre Institute. Anadolu Agency (AA) broadcasts in Bosnian, Albanian, and Macedonian. Furthermore, Turkish TV series are becoming increasingly widespread in the Balkan region. Moreover, Turkey supplied Western Balkans with personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical aid at the start of the pandemic, though suffering a blow later in the vaccine rollout period due to the lack of its vaccine.

However, soft power is insufficient as the Turkish influence on political decision-making was limited. Thus, Turkey launched an economic expansion in the region. Turkey has FTAs with all Western Balkan states and laboriously invests in infrastructure, construction, and defense industries. For example, more than 600 Turkish firms operate in Albania, with 15,000+ people being employed by them. Days ago, Albanian PM Edi Rama revealed the purchase of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones. Ever-strengthening bilateral relations between Serbia and Turkey are also a substantial development in the region. Fostered by Vucic and Erdogan, who share similar worldviews on global affairs, both states relish an unprecedented amicability in their history.

But what do all these imply for the Western Balkan EU enlargement? Does it constitute a risk for it? Julie Lechanteux, French MEP from National Rally, questioned Turkish practices by enquiring to the Commission on the possible contradiction of such activities with the EU interests. The response constituted resolute approval for endeavors encouraging sounder relations among EU candidates for membership. Turkey and Western Balkan states experienced tense moments as well. After the failed coup in 2016, Turkey solicited the extradition of Gulenists in the region. National governments hesitated in cooperating with the Turkish government in this matter (due to the legality of Turkish assertions). Yet, Turkey seemingly has no problems with Western Balkan integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. All in all, Turkey is also a NATO member and an EU candidate. In addition, Turkey plays a crucial role in combatting radical Islam in the region by popularizing its more moderate model of a Muslim society.

In conclusion, while soft power efforts may have bolstered Turkey’s image within Western Balkan societies, they had limited success in influencing actual political decision-making. Turkey crucially developed its relations with Western Balkans in sociocultural, political, economic, and military domains. Yet, at critical junctions, Western Balkan governments still prioritize their EU membership path. Meanwhile, although EU-Turkey relations have deteriorated over the last few years, Turkey does not constitute a threat to the accession process. As a vital NATO member and an EU candidate, Western Balkan integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions and security architecture aligns with Turkey’s national interests. It is possible to say that Turkey merely seeks a more favorable role within the Euro-Atlantic framework in light of the Western Balkan enlargement.

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