Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 90
Mobile Codes 532,533,542,505
ccTLD .tr
Currency Turkish Lira (1EUR = 1.95TL)
Land Area 783,562 sq km
Population 72.6 million
Language Turkish
Major Religion Islam

Bosnia, Revisited: Turkey’s Gains, Challenges and Future Aspirations

By Maja Šoštarić in Sarajevo

“Sarajevo is a miracle (…). If you understand Sarajevo, you can understand all the Ottoman history. Because it is, according to the saying, [true that] if you understand a person you can understand that century.”

Is this a new slogan of the Bosnian chamber of commerce? Or was it perhaps taken out of some Sarajevo guidebook? Not quite. The author is Ahmet Davutoğlu, Foreign Minister of Turkey, and the paragraph stems from his speech at the opening ceremony of a conference entitled “The Ottoman Legacy and Balkan Muslim Communities Today,” held in Sarajevo in October 2009. After that conference, Mr Davutoğlu was harshly criticized by detractors for his alleged neo-Ottomanism in relation to the Balkans.

Turkey has been effectively present in the Balkans for centuries. The Ottoman Empire lasted until the early 20th century, and Balkan countries were an important part of it. Some of them, such as Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia or Kosovo, were strongly influenced by Turkish culture, religion and language, and this legacy is still evident today.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has a large Muslim community – in fact, one of its three constituent peoples are Bosniaks, or the Bosnian Muslim ethnic group. Conversely, Turkey hosts large numbers of diaspora from all the abovementioned countries; in fact, there are more Bosniaks in Turkey than in BiH (2 million opposed to 1.9 million, according to the most recent approximate estimates).

Explaining Friends to Neighbors, and Neighbors to Friends

Turkey’s foreign policy is a continual balancing, even juggling act. Maintaining friendly relations with Iran but also shaking hands with the United States; trying to calm down Syria while negotiating with Israel; seeking “to explain friends to neighbors and neighbors to friends” (as former Turkish Ambassador Umut Arık once noted) – these are all elements of the famous Turkish ‘Zero Problems with Neighbors’ foreign policy imperative of the current AK Party government Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, widely considered the most influential man behind this policy, has received both praise and criticism for it.

The MFA website also notes that since its establishment, Turkey has been pursuing “a peaceful, realistic and consistent foreign policy guided by the principle ‘Peace at Home and Peace Abroad’ set out by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.” Other objectives of Turkish foreign policy stated include “security and stability in its region and beyond,” with the caveat that the policy is “based on [Turkey’s] democratic and secular political system, vibrant economy and its tradition of reconciling modernity with its cultural identity.”

After the 12 June parliamentary elections, the victorious incumbent AKP (Justice and Development Party) government has many challenges ahead, according to the International Crisis Group: resolving the Cyprus issue, carrying out a comprehensive constitutional reform, solving the Kurdish problem, determining its stance on the Middle East or bringing some fresh breeze to the country’s eternal EU accession process. So when will Turkey find time for engaging in the Balkans, after all? And what is its motivation?

A Turkish diplomat in BiH recently stated for that Turkey’s ‘zero problems’ foreign policy in the Balkans consists of four main pillars: 1) high-level political dialogue between countries of the region; 2) regional economic integration; 3) respect for multiculturalism, and 4) principle of security for all.

As far as political dialogue in the Balkans is concerned, Turkey has recently established top -level consultation mechanisms with BiH, Serbia and Croatia. Also, Turkey is active in supporting trade creation in the region. When it comes to cultural diversity, the foreign minister is far from the only Turk to view Sarajevo as a unique example of a multi-religious and multi-cultural city. Finally, Turkey holds that security in the Balkans should not be a zero-sum game, but that a balance between security and freedom needs to be established. In BiH in particular, this is a difficult task.

State, Entities and Cantons: Common Denominator- Crisis

Where should one start, when trying to describe the bedlam of Bosnia & Hercegovina? The newest Crisis Group Bosnia report considers the country to be in the “worst crisis since the war.” The same report addresses the parallel crisis in both Bosnia’s entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS).

The elections of October 3, 2010 resulted in a victory for multiethnic parties, such as the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Still, to date, nine months after the election, BiH has no government due to lack of consensus between the winning parties. According to an unwritten rule of rotation, the prime minister in this mandate should be a Croat (following the Serb and Bosniak PMs in the previous two mandates). However, the candidature of Slavo Kukić, a university professor nominated by the SDP, has just been blocked by the representatives of RS, which minimizes the chances for BiH to have a state government before September.

The situation at the entity level does not look much brighter. In May, all eyes were on the president of RS, Milorad Dodik, who threatened to hold a controversial referendum, something that would call into question the legitimacy of the decisions made by the High Representative, in particular the laws relating to the Court of BiH and the Office of the Chief Prosecutor.

However, following the urgent visit of Brussels envoy Miroslav Lajčak and the EU High Representative, Lady Catherine Ashton, Dodik decided to drop the referendum. This is how one crisis was at least temporarily averted.

However, at the same time another crisis was taking place in the FBiH. In March 2011, after an initiative of the SDP, the new federal government was appointed. This, however, was done to the detriment of the two largest Croatian parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and its splinter party, the Croatian Democratic Union 1990 (HDZ 1990). These two parties claimed that they could not be ignored in forming the government since they represented the genuine interest of Croatian people, with whose majority they were elected.

After the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) responded to what they saw as an unlawful government formation by annulling the election of the federal president and vice president, High Representative Valentin Inzko intervened and immediately reversed the decision of the CEC. In other words, the new federal government, led by the SDP and its partners, was given the green light. The HDZ and HDZ 1990 considered this a major injustice and reacted by forming a parallel government, the Croatian National Parliament in Mostar. Therefore, even with a government in place, there is still major discord in FBiH over whether that government is even legitimate.

As for the RS, the withdrawal of the referendum decision did not imply an end of the RS-policy of blocking BiH state institutions. Actually, Dodik probably never even really planned to hold a referendum in the first place, because he would not want to be the president of a new Abkhazia or South Ossetia: an internationally unrecognized and isolated enclave. In fact, the referendum hysteria indicates that the international community was possibly misguided. There seems to be a lack of a comprehensive international strategy for BiH; what we can see are only some sporadic firefights.

OHR and ‘Five Plus Two’ –Adieu, Protectorate?

When the previous Head of the EU Delegation in BiH departed in summer 2010, his successor (Danish diplomat Peter Sørensen) was not appointed until May 2011. In other words, the EU needed almost a full year to appoint its representative in a country without a government.

What is often heard in Sarajevo is that BiH, divided and impoverished, does not seem to figure very high on the list of EU priorities. On the other hand, as several foreign NGO representatives in BiH noted for, the problem with BiH politicians and the general public is overly high expectations from the international community, and thus an avoidance of any kind of national responsibility.

Yet another problem of the international engagement in BiH is the very uncertain future of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which for several years has not been fully using its given Bonn powers. While his predecessors sacked a number of BiH officials from office, often without any substantial explanation, the current High Representative, Valentin Inzko (set to depart from office on 31 August 2011) has lifted all the remaining suspensions from public office for officials previously banned by his predecessors, demonstrating that the Office is preparing for closure. However, the rapid intervention of the High Representative in the case of the FBiH crisis, and the lack thereof in the case of Dodik’s threats in Republika Srpska, has yet again contributed to the overall division within BiH.

Since there are five objectives and two conditions in place (the famous ‘five plus two’) put forward by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) for the OHR to close, it is uncertain for how much longer the Office is going to exist. For now, BiH has fulfilled three objectives (ensuring fiscal sustainability, entrenching the rule of law, and completing the District of Brčko final award), as well as one condition (signature of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, with the EU on 16 June 2008).

The remaining two objectives – division of state property and defense property – have been subject to debate for years now and a viable solution does not seem to be in sight. Furthermore, one remaining condition, “positive assessment of the situation” by PIC, is clearly an utterly subjective one.

That said, does the solution lie in burying ‘five plus two’ and closing down the OHR once and for all? Bosniaks would object, as they see their interests (strengthening the state) protected by the OHR. On the other hand, Croats and Serbs would welcome the OHR’s closure, because they want a more decentralized BiH.

How Soft is ‘Soft Power?’

With the appointment of a new EU Special Representative (EUSR)/ Head of Delegation, there is an obvious shift towards the EU soft-power approach, which the current High Representative has recently welcomed. Further bans and impositions are not expected – rather, the benefits of the EU accession process should serve as a single carrot, and the slowdown thereof as a single stick for BiH.

The SAA with BiH was signed and ratified by all EU members, but needs to be endorsed by the Council. Endorsing the SAA will serve as a positive message of support for BiH, an official from the European Commission Office in Sarajevo notes for BiH has still not applied for EU membership. Nevertheless, according to the abovementioned official, the EU sees three priorities for the upcoming period: 1) forming a government; 2) implementing the Sejdić-Finci ruling of the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, that found the BiH Constitution non-compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights; and 3) adopting, as urgently as possible, the Law on State Aid.

Also, following Lady Ashton’s visit to Banja Luka, a comprehensive EU structural dialogue on judicial reform was launched. However, the question as to remains whether all these single efforts can result in an elaborated strategy.

BiH has probably the most complex administrative and political system in Europe, if not beyond, which is a result of an equally tricky political and administrative structure determined by the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995. The international community was present during the war (1991-1995) and has remained in BiH continuously since. Yet the major powers, such as Brussels and Washington, have a tendency to neglect the significance of Turkey, a country that has for several years been working its way into BiH and the Balkans in general, in a very intelligent, elaborated and strategic manner – as an economic partner, mediator and powerbroker.

Fix Bosnia? No Problem!

Turkey and BiH have shared a long, and often common history. BiH served as an Ottoman fortress against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire for several hundred years. In 1992, Turkey was among the first countries to recognize the independence of BiH. Moreover, it called for NATO intervention against the Serbs in Bosnia in order to end the bloodshed of 1992-1995, and in 1994 it helped to broker the alliance between Croatia and Bosnia against Serbia by investing in the highway Zagreb-Rijeka (a joint investment of the Turkish ENKA and the American Bechtel). Finally, Turkey is one of the members of PIC, the institution that still figures as part of the Dayton heritage in Bosnia.

In a similar vein, Turkey has for years been lobbying for the full NATO and EU membership of BiH. Unlike many other global players, Turkey takes the view that the EU and NATO membership are not ends in themselves, but rather means in order to achieve the necessary ends.

As discussed above, the EU and the OHR have lost some credibility over the last few years, which is where Turkey sees itself stepping in. The EU, for instance, requires a much stronger state for the reforms it demands from BiH. This, in turn, brings about internal clashes between Bosnia’s three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), diminishing the leverage of the EU as significant player in the region.

On the initiative of Turkey, BiH was offered the Membership Action Plan (MAP) in April 2010. The contested state property law, one of the objectives required by the PIC in order to close down the OHR, is also crucial for Bosnian NATO membership. The law assumes a transfer of property previously belonging to the former Yugoslavia from entities back to the central state. This is unacceptable for Republika Srpska. If, through the mediation power of Turkey, Serbia can convince RS of the benefits of MAP and NATO membership, then following that logic also the issue of state property may be successfully resolved.

Increasingly active in the Balkans, Turkey has been striving to broker friendlier relations between the Balkan neighbors. As its foreign minister likes to emphasize, Turkey’s diplomacy consists of three main objectives: 1) strengthening Turkey’s good relations with traditional Balkan partners; 2) establishing relations with countries with which Turkey has had a problematic past; and 3) improving regional stability by playing a mediator role wherever possible.

Being a member of the Southeast European Cooperation Process (SEECP), an initiative dating back to 1996, Turkey held the chairmanship of SEECP from 2009 to 2010. In the framework of SEECP, Turkey successfully managed to institutionalize two tripartite consultation mechanisms: BiH-Serbia-Turkey and BiH-Croatia-Turkey. As a result of these, the Serbian parliament adopted a declaration apologizing for the genocide of Srebrenica.

In turn, Turkish companies are pouring in significant investment by deciding to build a new highway linking Belgrade with southern Serbia. In this manner, Turkey hopes, the reconciliation process between BiH and Serbia can be somewhat accelerated. By the same token, although the relations between BiH and Croatia have been quite warm since the end of the war, the city of Mostar remains the scene of intermittent ethnic clashes between Bosniaks and Croats.

Again, Turkey is hoping to counteract this by investing in and around Mostar. Finally, on April 24, 2010, Turkey achieved a major diplomatic success when the Istanbul Declaration on Peace and Stability in the Balkans was signed by Serbia, Croatia and BiH. That declaration calls for peace in the region as well as its European integration and future common prosperity. The then Bosniak member of the Bosnian tripartite Presidency, Haris Silajdžić, represented his country in Istanbul and signed the declaration. This consequently engendered rage in RS, where Silajdžić was accused of violating the country’s constitution and Bosniaks in general were depicted as Turkey’s protegés.

“Rolls Royce Ambitions, but Rover Resources”

As a January 2010 US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks metaphorically put it, Turkish diplomacy has “Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources.” Many observers from abroad do not consider Turkish foreign policy aspirations as something more than genuine, Eugène de Rastignac-like ambitions. In their opinion there is no financial backing for Turkey to become a serious global power, despite its noteworthy efforts to increase its official development assistance (ODA).

Turkey’s Growing Business Presence

According to the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA)’s latest available Turkish Development Assistance Report (2008), Turkish bilateral official development assistance in 2008 was the highest in the Caucasus and Central Asia, followed by the Middle East and then the Balkans.

As far as BiH is concerned, in 2008 Turkey was its eighth-highest donor. Official aid to BiH amounted to additional $15.92 million, making BiH the second-biggest Turkish aid-recipient in the Balkans (after Kosovo). However, a glance at the trade volume of Turkey with BiH shows the sum of $600 million (2009), but in 2007 Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) amounted to only 1.4% of total FDI in BiH. BiH was the Balkan country with the third-largest direct investment in the region (after Serbia and Ukraine), amounting to $10.32 million.

Some of the most important Turkish investors in BiH are Turkish Ziraat Bank, the Sisecam (glass producer) and the Hayat Kimya (chemical products). Turkish Ziraat Bank Bosnia (TZBB) was the first foreign capitalized bank to open in Bosnia-Herzegovina (operational since 1997). Recently, another major Turkish export-import lender, Eximbank, announced it would extend credit lines for projects in BiH.

Further, Turkish Airlines acquired 49 percent of BH Airlines in 2009. Moreover, a Turkish-Bosnian Business Council (TBBC) was established as early as 1995, three years after a Free Trade Agreement was signed, which reduced all custom duties on imported Turkish products. Turkey has also invested in a number of infrastructure projects across BiH.

A Turkish Language, University and Cultural Presence

Culturally, Turkey’s role in BiH is large and growing.  Besides the Turkish Language Center in Sarajevo, two Turkish universities have been established in the country: the International Burch University located in the Sarajevo suburb of Ilidža and the International University of Sarajevo, hosting approximately 1500 students.

In addition, Turkey has organized a number of film festivals, exhibitions, poetry nights and children festivals in BiH. Recently, Ankara has obtained one more powerful ally in BiH: Salmir Kaplan, the FBiH’s new minister for culture and sports. This Istanbul University graduate is also an AKP political academy alumnus, and, it goes without saying, wants to promote the language and culture of his alma mater. In that light, Kaplan pledged to strengthen Turkish-Bosnian cooperation in culture, preservation of patrimony and sports.

Turkey: Back for Good?

The EU and US have been observing Turkey’s emergence with a pinch of skepticism. Several Sarajevo-based EU diplomats and foreign think-tank representatives noted for that in reality, Turkey’s allure applies only to Bosniaks. Croats, and in particular Serbs in BiH are still rather reluctant to see Turkey as a Bosnian, not to mention a Balkan, superhero, officials and analysts add.

An influential Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, provides some estimates of the Turkish economic significance in the Balkans. According to their blog, Turkey is in fact much more interested in bigger regional markets such as Bulgaria and Romania, and the European Union, its largest trade partner. On the other hand, the CSIS contends, Greece keeps on playing a key economic role in the region despite its catastrophic financial turmoil.

Moreover, regionally Ankara is lagging behind Russia in the energy industry, as well as Greece and Germany in the area of telecommunications. In BiH in particular, as already discussed, there are inflows of Turkish development assistance, but little investment, whereby only the latter is a real income-generator. Some BiH analysts even fear that in its attempts to earn the crown of the regional political mediator, Turkey may eventually choose Serbia over BiH to do business with (and the current investment trends point in that direction). So, where is the Turkish policy for BiH heading? Is it back? Are we talking ‘much ado about nothing’?

A Different Path

As the above analysis tried to show, there are several facts that must not be overlooked. BiH’s situation is delicate, to put it mildly. EU membership seems unattainable. Visa liberalization, having served as the only palpable benefit of it, was achieved last December, leaving many Bosnians with that weird mix of sentiments of accomplishment and anxiety, which can be summarized as, “now what?”

NATO membership, on the other hand, seems closer, and progressing towards it could drag along some useful reforms, such as finally resolving the issue of state and defense property ownership.

Rather than looking at what everyone else has been focusing on- i.e., when the OHR will close and be fully substituted by the EUSR, whether RS will secede and whether there is going to be a state-level government in the near future, Turkey has opted for a different path. It chose a combination of advocacy and economic support, which is much more tangible and attractive for average citizens.

Still, for the magic recipe to work, Ankara needs to flesh out its investment policy in BiH, and should find partners and interlocutors in two constituent peoples other than Bosniaks alone. Of course, centrist and moderate parties are always the best option, in particular should Turkey wish to give its contribution in the heated debate over the BiH constitutional change.

In a similar vein, Turkish agenda of regional reconciliation in shape of tripartite consultations may bear some fruit soon. Including Serbia, as the biggest country of the Western Balkans and a significant economic partner, as well as Croatia, as the 28th EU member state (as of 1 July 2013), in the mechanism, was diplomatically very wise.  In the framework of SEECP and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) in Sarajevo, the consultation meetings should become regular.

One danger for Turkish foreign policy is precisely Ankara’s omnipresence. For instance, its policy in the Middle East at times conflicts with its policy for the Balkans. When BiH was a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, it supported sanctions against Iran proposed by the UNSCR 1929, though Turkey voted against. Another example: while it was chairing SEECP, Turkey condemned Israeli attack on international aid flotilla in May 2010. However, other SEECP countries never followed the Turkish lead.

All that said, it still holds that GDP-wise, Turkey is currently number 16 in the world. During his abovementioned speech in Sarajevo in 2009, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu exclaimed: “Turkey is back!” He was not shy to add: “the Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were a success story. Now we have to reinvent this.” This provoked many different reactions, but to be quite honest, it was also supposed to. Certainly, evoking Ottoman times does have a symbolic meaning. Still, in practical terms Turkey will be judged by what it is doing in BiH and the Balkans now, and not by what it did 400 years ago.

Responding to criticism, it remains to be said that maybe it is not Turkey’s ambition to become a Rolls-Royce for now, anyway. After all, the Rover is not a bad car, mainly because it is apparently quite affordable and accessible to all.

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