Erdoğan’s leadership in Balkans and Europe’s interests
I accompanied President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his tour of the Balkans over the last three days. Taking meetings in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, the Turkish leader focused on contributing to stability, security and economic cooperation. During his timely trip, which featured a series of bilateral agreements, business forums and leader-to-leader meetings, Erdoğan assumed an exceptional role in a conflict-prone part of the world, de-escalating tensions and throwing his weight behind peace.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, which will hold elections on Oct. 2, has been dealing with crises fueled by complex and dysfunctional political structures put in place by the Dayton Accords in 1995. Türkiye has been promoting the country’s economic development by maintaining a close relationship with all three of its communities. One could conclude that the Turkish policy has been successful considering the gratefulness of Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the collective federal head of state. Undoubtedly, Türkiye not only ensures the safety and future of that country’s Bosniak community but also serves as an active intermediary to prevent violent clashes between the Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. In other words, Ankara serves as a spiritual guarantor of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Erdoğan’s visit to Serbia, too, had significance beyond the conclusion of seven bilateral agreements between the two countries. Expressing that the “golden age” of the relationship had begun, the Serbian leader, Aleksandar Vucic, made no attempt to conceal his appreciation of his Turkish counterpart’s leadership: “We deeply respect Erdoğan’s constructive role. We are a small nation but he has always shown great interest in this region. We are grateful for that.”
Vucic also demonstrated his respect for Erdoğan in his remarks regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. The Turkish president implements a balanced policy between the warring nations by sending the necessary messages to the relevant governments on occasion. Accordingly, the Serbian president clearly expressed his appreciation for his Turkish counterpart’s ability to speak openly about Europe’s mistakes whilst continuing Ankara’s cooperation with Moscow without unsettling the Europeans.
Certainly, Erdoğan should double down on his role as an active intermediary in the Russia-Ukraine war. There are absolutely no signs that the fighting will stop anytime soon. Yet Türkiye, which brokered the grain deal, could play an important role in preventing a nuclear disaster and facilitating a prisoner exchange.
Unhappy with the European Union’s decision to impose a price cap on Russian energy, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called for a limitation on the destinations for Ukraine’s grain exports: “We should probably consider limiting the destinations for grain exports and I will take it up with Erdoğan because he and I developed that plan.”
It almost felt like Putin delivered a response to French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently insisted that Türkiye should not be allowed to be the only country that speaks to Russia. Obviously, no European leader is in a position to imitate Erdoğan’s diplomatic engagement with his Russian counterpart. Sanctions, coupled with the dual crisis of energy and food, transformed the Russian invasion of Ukraine into a full-blown European crisis. In the end, Macron’s call on Europe to refrain from further alienating the Russians fell on deaf ears.
Yet the European Union could experience certain developments this winter that could fuel debate on Erdoğan’s following statement: “Russia is not a country that anyone could treat lightly.” Indeed, those commentators, who warn that the Russian sanctions actually hurt the European economies are already speaking up. It goes without saying that the Russian economy, too, experiences certain challenges. Yet there is reason to believe that Europe’s welfare societies are less likely to resist those poor conditions compared to the Russian people. Against the backdrop of that crisis, Erdoğan’s tour of the Balkans was critically important for ensuring that the region won’t be destabilized by domestic developments or the Ukraine question.
I believe that those commentators in the European media, who are worried about Türkiye’s strengthening presence in Africa and the Balkans, suffer from narrow-mindedness. In this new era of uncertainty, where great power competition continues to deepen, the Ukraine crisis should be enough for Europe to grasp that it faces some very serious threats. It doesn’t take another crisis to figure out that Türkiye is indispensable for the continent’s future. Accordingly, it is in the interest of the Europeans to allow Ankara to assume an active role on all platforms and as part of all initiatives, starting with the “European political community.”