Turkey is OK with both European and non-European Western Balkans

A talk on Turkey’s role of a mediator in the Black Sea, and of a close partner of Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and the Western Balkans

Vladimir MItev, Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat

Cross-border Talks invited Marian Karagyozov – a Balkanologist from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, for a talk on Turkey’s role in international relations in the Black Sea region and the Western Balkans.

Marian discussed Turkey’s specific role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, about the energy cooperation between Turkey and Russia, about Ankara’s attitude towards Western Balkans and Bulgarian-Turkish strategic cooperation. 

Turkey is the most populous and most dynamic economy in Southeastern Europe and that makes it a magnet for any of the small countries in the region. Also, it has the resources and the strategic mindset to play complex geopolitical games and be perceived as neutral, while many other countries in the region are forced to pick sites in the war in Ukraine.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another episode of Cross-border talks. We remain loyal to our interest in the region of Southeastern Europe. And today we are going to discuss various issues related to Turkey in international relations with an expert coming from Sofia. Marian Karagyozov is an expert on Balkan studies from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and he used to be a correspondent of the Bulgarian National Radio in Turkey. So he certainly has a lot to say about Turkish position in international relations and Turkish role in southeastern Europe. 

Let us start first with the specific role which Turkey’s playing. A lot of countries have been trying to bridge between, let’s say, the West and “the East”. But now there is a war. And in spite of the war, Turkey seems to be on good terms with both Ukraine and Russia. Turkey belongs to NATO and increases its trade with Russia. So what is the explanation for the apparent success of this mediator position of Turkey?

Marian Karagyozov: Hello. Thank you for having me. First of all, if you look through history, Russia is the global great power, which is closest to Turkey. And that is why the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic have always balanced against it due to this geographical proximity. So I would say Turkey knows Russia well and Russia knows Turkey well too.

 At the same time, as you mentioned, Turkey is a member of NATO and the so-called Western alliance. However, the relations between the US, some major European powers and Turkey were never free of problems throughout the Cold War as well. You remember the Cyprus issue. After the end of the Cold War, there was also a divergence over policies of Western countries in the Middle East and so on.

So right now in the academic literature, you can read a lot of articles or books on the topic of Turkey changing the axis or about the problems or issues in the Western alliance with Turkey. What made Turkey specifically well-suited to play this mediating role is the so-called grain deal. It was very, very suitable for all parties involved because it was good for US and for Turkey from the point of view of soft power, image, peace deal, negotiations and so forth. It was good for Ukraine providing much needed access to foreign currency. We know that in this war situation the Ukrainian economy is struggling and it is also good for Russia, because allowing this grain export to Middle East, to Africa, to Asia, Russia actually provided this much needed food deliveries to countries like like Egypt, like India, some some other countries in the southern hemisphere which are neutral, maybe not sympathetic, but neutral in this confrontation between the West and Russia.

For many people, including in Poland, Turkish arms, particularly Turkish drones, became one of the symbols of this war. There is even a Ukrainian song about Bayraktars in this war. And to the surprise of many observers, Turkey at the same time is still involved in common projects with Russia, and we are talking about strategic projects, energy projects. It is Rosatom, or a company allied to Rosatom that is building the Akkuyu energy plant that, if finished, is going to supply Turkey with 10% of energy consumed altogether. Why? It is so important for Turkey to maintain cooperation with Russia in energy and how this is going to influence the general role that Turkey plays in the Black Sea?

Actually, Turkey is an energy-hungry country because its industry is developing. Also, the population growth is very serious. The projections are for maybe reaching 100 million people. Currently it stands at about 84-85 million people. At the same time, the energy resources of Turkey are very poor. Turkey does not have significant quantities of oil and gas. It has some hydropower capacity and potential. But as we said in modern economies, oil and gas are much more important. 

So actually, the first major gas deals between Russia and Turkey had been signed even during the the end of the Soviet era, in the mid-eighties. And from from that moment onwards, this cooperation is being developed. Currently Turkey is buying more than 30 billion cubic meters per year of natural gas from Russia and also part of its oil. Turkey, an aspiring global power, needs to have its own nuclear capacity because it means technology, industrial development, engineering and so on. That is why the Akkuyu project is very important.

By the way, it is very contested in Turkey because the opposition is very critical about this project due to the fact that basically right now Russia is owning the project. Russia is building a nuclear power plant. And according to the contract, they would operate the power plant and they would sell half of the produced electricity at a fixed price and the other half at market prices. So that’s how Rosatom will get the money the company invested for building the power plant back. But Turkish opposition is critical because they say: “You know, actually, this is a Russian project. Where is the Turkish participation in this project?” 

But, yes, thisenergy dimension is very, very significant in these two countries’ relations.

When Western Balkans are under discussion, it is always said that if the EU does not get more involved there other forces and it is presumed Russia and Turkey will get involved stronger in the Western Balkans. So let me ask this: what is the Turkish attitude towards the region of Western Balkans and the perspective of its joining the EU? We had recently the case of Northern Macedonia, which resolved an issue, at least for now, with Bulgaria and could theoretically start negotiations.

Two years ago, one of the best Turkish academics published an article in the semi-official journal published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey. He said that Turkey would be happy with both alternatives: Western Balkan countries joining the EU or not joining the EU. If Western Balkan countries join the EU, it would be good, because those are countries with very tight and very close strategic, military, economic, cultural, etc. ties with Turkey. So those countries could be friends of Turkey inside the EU or if Turkey is a member of the EU, they could work together. 

On the other hand, as we see, there are many, many problems with the accession of the Balkan countries to the European Union. So if those countries are outside of the Union, then this is also a bearable situation for Turkey. Then, Turkey could have a free room to develop these ties we already mentioned in different fields, economic, cultural, etc.

In a nutshell, the Western Balkans are one of the regions where Turkey feels comfortable because there are no direct threats coming from this region towards Turkey. And this could be a strategic depth for Turkey, or it could give Turkish foreign policy kind of a hint or one. Or it could serve as a very good basis for Turkey to become a regional or more than a regional power. So basically the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, those are the regions on which Turkey is planning to build its regional clout.

Before Vladimir asks about the Balkans because I think he has some more questions about the Balkans, I am interested to elaborate a bit more on this Caucasus question because recently we had more tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan says openly that Turkey is a brotherly country for Azeri citizens. So what could be Turkey’s role in this region?

As you said Malgorzata, the slogan under which the partnership between Turkey and Azerbaijan is being developed is “Two states, one nation”. So really, they’re promoting this narrative that they are brotherly people. And actually Azerbaijani army is copying models from Turkey in military training, military education, and organization. They’re buying arms from Turkey and so on, so forth. 

For Baku Turkey is a very good supplier of arms and also a very good to have a regional power which is leveling the playing field, because Armenia is part of the Organization for the Collective Security Treaty. Moscow is basically supplying Armenia with arms and materials. So for the Azeris, having another significant player is very good to in order to have upper hand in their in their conflict with with the Armenian side and from from Turkish strategic perspective the Caucasus is also extremely important region because of its natural resources, especially Azerbaijani hydrocarbons and also because that’s the door towards Central Asia and its vast plains.

Turkey has another close partner and friend in the Western Balkans, which is Bosnia. And there has been some strong political crisis in Bosnia with threats for falling apart of the country or redefinition of its essence. What is the Turkish position in this dispute, which also involves Serbians and Croatians from Bosnia?

I would say something I forget to mention, with regards to your previous question about the Western Balkans and Turkey as I answer this question. Actually, what when the European Union or major Western powers are very busy with other issues, then in general, a space in the Western Balkans is open for outside players like Russia, like Turkey, maybe China. So when the European Union is busy with the migration crisis from the Middle East, the debt crisis, economic issues and challenges and so on and so forth, and starts looking into itself, this opens a space for these outside players.

If we look closer at Bosnia, we will see that we have Republika Srpska, which is Serbian entity, and we have a Bosnian Muslim-Croat federation. For Republika Srpska, obviously, Belgrade is a partner state. The Croats have Croatia to support them. Bosnian Muslims, Bosniaks, feel alone in this situation. So if they have to look for a foreign partner or someone to cover their back, it should be Turkey. And it is Turkey, even though Bosniaks often complain  that the level of economic integration between the economies is not sufficient or it’s not equal to the level of political and cultural ties. 

Bosnia is also a very, very difficult case because of the current electoral, governmental, administrative system. I would say it is very complicated. It’s very easy to become a minister in Bosnia because there are more than 120 ministers. There are different cantons and different entities with their own councils of ministers. I guess per capita your chances to become a minister in Bosnia are maybe the highest in the world. This complicated system is creating many, many problems. And even the Croats, which are the smallest ethnic group, are not happy with this situation. 

Turkey is trying to promote a so-called trilateral mechanism between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia. But it has some positive achievements, some political declarations about. For example, respect for borders has been achieved. But on the other hand, also, that kind of cooperation has some limits. And when you reach these limits, it’s very difficult to push the border and to open new spaces for cooperation. At least those trilateral mechanisms between Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia and Bosnia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, those triangles could stabilize the situation. On the other hand, of course, it’s not giving too much agency to the local political players and to local populations. This is for sure, a negative, negative thing. 

But this is a half full, half empty glass dilemma – which is better to provide some stability or to have work, work, actors, agency. That’s an open question.

There is another country which produces a lot of ministers, and it is Bulgaria, because recently there were plenty of governments in Bulgaria. And curiously, it has been said that Bulgaria is the country which is maybe the best neighbor of Turkey among all its neighbors. Turkey has some issues with various of its neighbors. So I’m wondering how much this cooperation or maybe igh level of trust between Bulgaria and Turkey allows for cooperation in other areas such as Western Balkans or other regions.

I am defending the thesis, when I participate in academic conferences or in my academic writings, that there is a specific kind of interdependency between Bulgaria and Turkey, in a sense that obviously Bulgaria is the Turkish gate towards Western Balkans and Western Europe, for Turkish trade, for Turkish industry. So that is why Bulgaria is very, very important for Ankara. For Bulgaria as well, Turkey is a very important country because it’s by far the most populous, the most powerful, the biggest neighbor. I mean, in terms of economy. Even Romania is not at par with Turkey, the size of the Turkish economy is much greater. 

All this is creating, as I said, this mutual interdependence. Can we work together or cooperate in the Western Balkans? Frankly, I don’t know. I think it’s difficult to have this cooperation because Turkey is having its own agenda in the Western Balkans. And it’s very difficult to have a partner. If we look at the size of the Western Balkan countries and Turkey, they are not comparable. So I would say that the influence is obviously one sided from Turkey to the Western Balkans. The Western Balkan countries do not have much I don’t know tools to project or any any influence in Turkey. Neither economic, nor cultural, nor demographic. They are not that strong and big.

In our very interesting and unstable times when multiple countries changed their geopolitical agenda like Sweden and Finland suddenly joining the NATO’s after decades of neutrality, Turkey is the example of a country that follows her own way. Turkey is the country that tries to impose her interests on the neighbors in the Middle East or to set up successful partnerships in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Turkey is definitely a country of ambitions and with an ambitious leader. Here we are not going to discuss the personal capacity of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but ambition is definitely a factor which must make us interested in Turkey’s future actions. That is why Turkey will probably be discussed again in Cross-border Talks. Thank you, Marian, for being with us. Thanks to everybody who watched our previous Turkey episode and those who will watch this one. Don’t forget to subscribe to Cross-border Talks or to comment on what our guest said. And see you again soon. Thank you.

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