Mihai Isac: Whatever Erdogan does has a strong effect on the Balkan region

Interview with a Romanian foreign policy journalist on Turkey’s rise in Southeast Europe and what it could mean for Bulgaria and Romania

The editor of the Romanian website Politicaexterna.ro talked to Cross-border Talks about Turkey’s role as a mediator between the West and Russia. He also commented on Turkey’s role for Bulgaria, Romania and the Balkans. Isac noted that Bulgaria and Turkey have some contradictions regarding the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Vladimir said that the Bulgarian-Turkish relationship is more ambiguous than it seems to outside observers. There is also cooperation and complementarity in it. Asked whether Bulgaria or Romania could take inspiration from Turkey for greater “strategic ambiguity”, Isac said that in his view, even if they were to sign a gas agreement with Turkey, it would not lead to much geopolitical realignment. He also believes that Bulgarians have experience of protests. So if someone tries to make Bulgaria a second Hungary, protests will limit this.

The meaning of Turkish ascension for Bulgaria, Romania and the Balkans

Another great discussion for cross-border talks, we will have with Mihai Isac, a journalist with two Romanian media covering this Eastern space and the Black Sea region. He studied at one of the most prestigious Romanian universities – SNSPA, which is the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. He is familiar with developments in Bessarabia, the region to the east of Romania, and in international relations.

We will have a few topics. One of them will be the rise of Turkey in the region, following its transformation into a mediator between the West and the so-called East in the conflict in Ukraine. And we will also deal with Romanian-Bulgarian relations. And eventually, if there is time, we will also deal with the changes in the system of international relations with the rise of China etc. So, Mihai, welcome. And first of all, I noticed that a few days ago the Turkish President Recep Erdogan was in Sochi, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A lot of cooperation issues were discussed. It was announced that Turkey will pay for Russian gas in rubles, which is otherwise forbidden because, I guess, it is not agreed or supported by any member of the Western Bloc. So Turkey has a very interesting role to play at the moment, especially after arranging and facilitating the grain deal between Ukraine, the United Nations and Russia. How do you perceive this rise of Turkey as a mediator between the West and the so-called East? And what does this rise of Turkey mean for our countries in the region, such as Romania and Bulgaria?

First of all, thank you very much for the invitation. A very good question. We see that Mr Erdogan is trying to push Turkey’s role from that of a regional player to a somewhat more important one, a kind of pan-European and Asian geopolitical player. We have to be aware that Mr Erdogan has not discussed with Mr Putin just talking about the grain dossier or the gas dossier. Mr Erdogan also talked about Syria and Turkey’s political interests in Syria. From what I hear, Mr Putin has approved a small Turkish intervention in Syria, which will help Turkey secure more land south of its border to deny its use by Kurdish or other anti-Turkish forces in the region. We must also be very aware that Mr Erdogan is playing a long-term game in our region. He is one of the most successful geopolitical players in the recent history of our region. Of course, we cannot deny that everything Mr Erdogan does has a strong impact in the Balkan region. And we will see this kind of development, including in next year’s electoral exercise in Turkey.

As I know, Bulgaria has always had a kind of strange relationship with Turkey in terms of the rights of Turkish citizens in Bulgaria and Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin. And Mr Erdogan has the ability to use this geopolitical card in his discussions with the future government in Sofia. Relations between Mr Erdogan and Bulgaria are more complex than those between Mr Erdogan and Romania. Bulgaria has more open issues to discuss with Turkey than Romania. Of course, we can also talk about the small dispute between Ankara and Sofia concerning the Republic of North Macedonia. And we also have to be very aware of the fact that basically the ethnic Turkish party in Bulgaria is a kind of appendage of the AKP party in Turkey. In my opinion, I know that Mr Erdogan has a lot of love, shall we say, for the Turkish communities in the Balkans, and not only for the Turkish communities, but for all the Muslim communities in the Balkans. We see these kinds of strategic operations using the Muslim religion for the benefit of Mr Erdogan’s party. We saw this in Kosovo. We have seen this in Novi Pazar, in southern Serbia and Montenegro. We have seen it again in Albania. And, of course, we cannot deny its use. It must give some chills to politicians in various Balkan capitals, between Romania and Turkey.

We do not have minority problems. The minorities, the Turkish and Tatar Muslim minorities in Romania are quite small. There is a problem in our relations because Turkey does not take into account the geopolitical interests of Romania or Bulgaria when dealing with Russia. This is because Turkey sees itself as a stronger country than its natural partners, Romania and Bulgaria. And we can expect Mr Erdogan to make some sudden geopolitical moves before the end of the year. Mr Erdogan’s personal involvement in the grain treaty, as you rightly said, is another factor that should worry the international community and especially the Balkan countries, because Mr Erdogan has one interest at heart, the interests of Turkey. And when the interests of Turkey, the interests of Bulgaria and the interests of Romania are not the same, then we should expect to have some problems. But in the long run, I think Mr. Erdogan is navigating some very troubled waters and it should be very interesting to see the reactions of his Russian partners, his Iranian partners to this geopolitical chess game.

Could Bulgaria develop strategic ambiguity, inspired by Turkey?

You mentioned some possible points of contention between Bulgaria and Turkey, but aren’t Bulgarian-Turkish relations much more ambiguous than some of the blunt judgments suggest? For example, just now we remember that a few years ago there was a case where a certain Turkish minority party leader was sacked because of alleged close relations with Erdogan. And it has also been implied that the Turkish party in Bulgaria is also somehow integrated into the European political elites. So, on this occasion, let me ask you about this: do you think that a certain strategic ambiguity that we see in Turkey is likely to extend further, for example, to Bulgaria or Romania? I can give some examples from the last few days. As you said, the leader of the Turkish minority party in Bulgaria recently met with Erdogan and said that Turkey can help Bulgaria in a hard winter. Apparently, it is implied that the winter will be harsh because of certain energy problems, perhaps caused by the war in Ukraine. And the Bulgarian government has also shown some signs that it may be looking to catch up on Russian gas supplies, which are entering Bulgaria through Turkey. So do you think this kind of strategic ambiguity is possible with respect to other nations in the region, other than Turkey?

Very good questions. Of course, the government in Sofia has a duty to its own people and it is natural to talk to Turkey because, as you know, Turkey has very good working relations with Azerbaijan and they have opened a new pipeline to Europe. And, of course, we cannot forget the role that Turkey played in the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and, of course, in the latest military confrontations in that region. Turkey is the key to the energy gateways of Asia, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. So this kind of ambiguity that you’re talking about is very likely to expand. I don’t see how it could involve more countries than Turkey at this point. But winter is coming, as they say, in Game of Thrones. And no one can say what will happen in a few months. It depends on what kind of government will be in Sofia, because you will have elections very soon. And it’s very important to understand that in the event that Sofia concludes, let’s say, an energy agreement with Turkey, or Romania concludes an energy agreement with Turkey, it doesn’t mean that Romania or Bulgaria will make any sudden geopolitical moves, such as giving up NATO membership or EU membership.

In our Balkan region, it is normal to address a problem when it arises. And this energy problem. It is what has been aggravated by the current war in Ukraine. And I think Bulgaria will have a clean chance to reach such an agreement with Turkey. But this will not mean that Bulgaria will give up its European values or its NATO membership. As proof, Bulgaria and Romania will host more NATO troops and house more NATO armaments. So I think this energy dossier will be dealt with in isolation from other issues. I don’t think Turkey will force Bulgaria to do anything that will jeopardise Bulgaria’s relations with EU nations. And Bulgaria is very interested in securing these kind of energy supplies and securing its role in the energy transmission system in the region, because Bulgaria has been blessed with a very important geographical location right in the heart of the Balkans.

So if you want to have an efficient energy transmission system, you have to take into account Bulgaria’s position and role. But I think it all depends on the next government of Bulgaria. As you know, there is great concern in various capitals that Bulgaria may become more like Hungary in our region in terms of its relations with Russia. But I believe that the Bulgarian political elite will understand that it is impossible to take too big a step backwards in terms of relations with the European Union, because let’s not forget that the Bulgarian population has gone to protests before. So any kind of derailment of European integration or NATO membership will be punished at the ballot box and in the streets of Sofia and other beautiful cities in Bulgaria.

We cannot forget that Bulgaria has a very tumultuous political history, and when its people want change, they will get it one way or another. But Turkey’s role is very important. As you said in your question, because Turkey has the key to this energy, the El Dorado, which is in the Caspian region. Let us not forget that, in addition to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan has a lot of gas reserves. Let us not forget that, if the nuclear agreement with Iran is signed, we may see new gas deals being made by European countries with Iran in the future. And this gas has to come through Turkey and Bulgaria. And given the recent relations between Turkey and Greece, I think Bulgaria is a natural choice for Erdogan to make an energy partner in the Balkans.

Photo: The Turkish president Recep Erdogan adopts successfully the position of mediator between the West and Russia on the grounds of the Turkish “strategic ambiguity” (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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