Turkey presence gets mixed welcome in Balkans



In the cafes of Novi Pazar, a predominantly Muslim town in southern Serbia, Turkish football clubs Fenerbahce or Galatasaray stir more emotion than Belgrade's Red Star or Partizan.
It is just one sign of Turkey's growing presence in the Balkans, where many have doubts over what their Ottoman-era master has in mind for the region.
"Since the end of the (Cold War) world, Turkey has had a very active policy in the Balkans," says Jean Marcou, an associate researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul.
"Turkey contributed to the stabilisation of conflicts" that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and to "efforts to reconstruct different countries," Marcou told AFP.
On that count, there is a sense of gratitude, but an assertive President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Turkey to play a major role in the world and especially in its former sphere of influence.
The Ottomans controlled the Balkans from the 14th to the 19th century. They drew top public servants and leaders from the volatile region to help run an empire which stretched up to modern-day Austria and Hungary, and across North Africa and the Middle East.
On Sunday, Erdogan holds a rally in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo to drum up support among the Turkish diaspora for the snap elections he called for June 24.
Last month, Muslim-populated Novi Pazar even made the Turkish president an honorary citizen.
Analysts said Erdogan's "neo-Ottomanism" did not sit well with everyone in a region where membership of the European Union is seen as the way forward.
For the Balkan nations "who intend to enter the EU, Turkey currently cannot serve as a model," said Enver Robelli, a Switzerland-based analyst.
- 'Erdogan rules Kosovo' -
Turkey has been trying to join the EU for years but its own membership bid has got bogged down in recriminations over Erdogan's record on human rights and democratic norms, especially after a failed coup in 2016.
In March, Turkey mounted an operation with Kosovo intelligence services -- apparently without clearance from the courts -- to repatriate six people it said belonged to the US-based movement of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the coup.
"Erdogan rules Kosovo," the GazetaExpress local news website wrote at the time. Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said the operation was "unacceptable and contrary to our values."
He dismissed Kosovo's interior minister and spy chief over their involvement, sparking a tart response from Erdogan.
"Hey Kosovo's prime minister, under whose instruction did you take such a step? " Erdogan said.
- 'Vassal' policy -
Similar indignation was seen in Bosnia in February when Sarajevo dropped plans to proclaim Turkish Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk an honorary citizen.
Claiming the move was prompted by "fear ... of Erdogan," the opposition denounced what they called the authorities' "vassal policy."
The weight of history breeds suspicion in Serbia, an Orthodox Christian nation.
At Bosnian Serb political rallies, chants that their entity of "Republika Srpska is not Turkey" can be heard.
Marcou said that despite the strains, the "Turkey-Serbia partnership was eventually safeguarded, reinvigorated in particular by the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, starting in 2016."
For Belgrade, it "is a boon, especially on the economic level," he said.
Serbian Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic said recently "there is not a week without a Turkish investor arriving in Serbia."
His country is already home to about 400 Turkish companies. This month Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic made a stop in Turkey on his way to Moscow.
Turkish companies control Pristina airport and plan to build one in Vlore, in southern Albania.
Turkish firms also own the Kosovo KEDS/KESCO power firm and are favourites to build the planned Belgrade-Sarajevo highway.
- Funds for mosques -
According to Marcou, the Turks are not in the Balkans "only to help economic development, but also to rehabilitate the Ottoman heritage and establish cultural cooperation".
Some 10,000 students in around 150 Bosnian schools learn Turkish, which is the third foreign language behind English and German.
Turks have funded the mosque in Mitrovica, Kosovo's biggest, with two million euros ($2.4 million).
They also spent 30 million euros for a mosque in Tirana, planned to become the most important place of worship for Balkan Muslims later this year.
For Robelli, Ankara exerts "real influence."
"Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia are considered former territories of the Ottoman empire and are treated as part of the neo-Ottoman world," he said.
"One should have no illusions," Robelli added. "Kosovo is not in a position, like Germany, to resist Turkish pressure."
by Katarina SUBASIC, with Ismet Hajdari in Pristina and Rusmir Smajilhodzic in Sarajevo
© 2018 AFP

Some call it "little Syria" since it is impossible to walk down the main shopping streets in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep without hearing traders and passers-by speaking Arabic.
The city of two million lies close to the Syrian border and has welcomed nearly 500,000 of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey since the civil war broke out in 2011.
But it is a cohabitation that is not without tensions, despite reassurances by the authorities.
"Here, we can consider that it is the capital of Syria, because there is more of them than us," says Turkish shopkeeper Adil Bayraz.
Bayraz who has run a grocery store for 30 years, estimates that 80 percent of traders on the street where he is now are Syrian, though another trader a little down the road says the number is 90 percent.
In any case, Arabic resonates louder than Turkish in this shopping street.
Spice shops, hookah waterpipe sellers and Syrian bakeries as well as restaurants with Arabic-only menus follow one another along the street.
"Our customers from Gaziantep no longer come here to shop. It has mostly become the market for Syrians," Bayraz adds, emphasising he gets along well with his neighbours, eats Syrian food and has even learned a smattering of Arabic.
According to Hasan Amanakh, a grocer down the road from Bayraz, shop rents have increased while his revenues have declined.
"Since you let them come, do not let them open a shop, they come shop at ours," he says angrily, addressing the authorities.
Gaziantep mayor Fatma Sahin says the city is a model of integrating the Syrian refugees into Turkish life without causing social tensions.
"We have managed to be one of the cities that has managed these difficult times successfully with the least damage for those people who live here," she tells AFP.
- Ransacked Syrian shops -
Many Syrians in Gaziantep are grateful to their "Turkish brothers" and say they feel welcome here.
It is the case for Mohammad Al-Hamaoui, owner of a small coffee and spice house.
"It has been seven years since I am here so I am known on the street," he says. "Relations are normal and there is no problem... We go about our business with the Turks and Syrians without any stress."
But others, who asked not to be named, tell a different story: Syrian shops ransacked, homeowners refusing to rent apartments to Syrians, difficulties obtaining loans or even simply to open a bank account as well as daily anti-Syrian comments.
In a January 2018 report entitled "Turkey's Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions", the International Crisis Group said incidents of intercommunal violence increased threefold in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.
"At least 35 people died in these incidents during 2017, including 24 Syrians," the report authors said, adding the potential for anti-refugee violence was highest in Turkey's three big cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
Officials and pro-government media reports usually "downplay tensions", the authors said, adding that this "stifles potentially salutary public debate".
- Return to Syria? -
Seeking to address this discontent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often offers Turks reassurances that Syrian refugees are expected to return home.
Since 2016, Turkey has launched two military operations in northern Syria to fight Kurdish militia and the Islamic State extremist group but also to create "safe zones" for the return of refugees.
According to Erdogan, over 160,000 Syrians have already returned to these areas.
"Ultimately when the security conditions are fulfilled, each will return home, to his own territory," says Sahin.
Asked about the tensions, Sahin replies: "We tell (residents) to be patient, we tell them that Syrians are beginning to leave and we are making big investments to meet their needs so that their quality of life does not deteriorate. And they understand us."
Yet this is not enough to convince everyone.
"It's impossible for them to leave because Syria, it's finished, there is nothing left... it's a ruin," says Sinem, a housewife.
She says she will "inevitably" have this question in mind when voting in the parliamentary and presidential polls on June 24.
Amanakh also says this will influence his vote.
"There is a feeling of despair against the government," he says. "Even those who supported them feel this revulsion."
by Luana Sarmini-Buonaccorsi