Neo-Ottomanism hanging in the balance

NEVER ONE alert to treading on toes, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while visiting Prizren  recently, caused a minor diplomatic furor by remarking that ‘Kosovo is Turkey’.

It’s a curious comment, to say the least, but in a region still beset by nationalist sensitivities, and in a territory that the Serbs still see as rightfully theirs, it displays a remarkable lack of diplomatic nouse. Serbia duly demanded an apology for the ‘scandal’ and declared its intention to pull out of tri-partite talks with Turkey and Bosnia, which began to great fanfare in 2010 with the aim of dispelling long-running hostility in the region.

Perhaps on some level Erdoğan has a point. To my interloper’s eye (not having ever visited Kosovo, mind), there are many similarities in landscape, architecture, artistic traditions and modes of everyday life across the Balkans/Turkey/the Caucasus.  In my experience as a visitor, the vibe(s) in Albania/Bosnia/Republika Srpska/Macedonia/northern Greece/Armenia/Georgia is/are not unlike that in Turkey. There may be more lamb and less pork on the grill in certain places, more church spires or minarets in others, but, as I see it, the pace of life, traditions of hospitality, the levels of gregariousness, neighbourliness and conviviality are remarkably consistent.

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Erdoğan riffing on affinities and/or commonalities – however clumsily – doesn’t necessarily equate to aggressive intent (which is how the Serbs have construed his comments), but it’s hardly statesmanlike talk, particularly given the traumatic history and tense geopolitics of Kosovo. Who knows if Erdoğan’s was an off-the-cuff remark, or if is just more evidence of a lack of strategic thinking, and an unhealthy degree of hubris (and thinking that he can say whatever comes into his head without repercussions).

The comment was another hiccup in Turkey’s efforts to buddy up to its neighbours, a policy begun under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and efforts to assume a leadership role in southeastern Europe. Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began with what appeared self-generating momentum back in the day but has been scuppered in recent years as the Arab Spring has gone haywire. As one Turkish journalist points out, Davutoğlu can rightly claim that events beyond his control, particularly in the Arab world, have meant his aspirations are all but unattainable, but it’s also true that Erdoğan, and his bluntness, have made things less tenable in the case of Syria and now Serbia.

Whether Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional leader were ever realistic is difficult to say. As has been noted, at one time its brisk economic growth and the relative stability of its political arena certainly meant it was well placed, but it appears that any window of opportunity is now firmly slammed shut (or perhaps shattered). Some may breathe a sigh of relief at this, but ambitions on the part of Turkey in its near-abroad need not have been sinister. There has been much talk of neo-Ottomanism as either some post-modern form of imperialism, or at least a desire on the part of the Turks to exact some sort of revenge for earlier territorial and military retreats.

Implicit in such interpretations lies a degree of Islamophobia that construes any proactive Muslim-majority state to be intrinsically hegemonic or expansionary (with missionary intent). But it may be more reasonable to see that at its heart the zero-problems-with-neighbours policy is only neo-Ottoman in the sense that it involves rekindling relations with the states within what was once the Ottoman realm. These are Turkey’s immediate neighbours, so it only makes sense that Turkey enjoys good relations, cooperates on strategic issues and trades with them.

For all of the fallout from Erdoğan’s inopportune comments and the traumas in Syria and Egypt, Turkey maintains good relations with Georgia, and these look set to continue under newly incumbent President Georgy Margvelashvili. Turkey also continues to be a country of opportunity for Greeks fleeing the economic malaise in their own homeland. In recent weeks, Ankara has opened the doors for Greek doctors to practice in Turkey, and in fact it is well documented that increasing numbers of Greeks, many of whom have studied the Turkish language, are finding work in Istanbul and Izmir.

Meanwhile, in a recent diplomatic flurry, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has started patching up relations with Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the stage is now set for neo-neo-Ottomanism.

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