Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina: A Future Reflecting on the Past
By Doğa Ulaş Eralp
Policy Brief, No. 46, August 2010
Bosnia-Herzegovina remains as divided as ever. In the past year Turkish foreign policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina has become more assertive and outcome-oriented. The successes of the new Turkish assertiveness have helped to initiate a much-needed reconciliation process between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Turkey derives its assertiveness not only from Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s vision of sustainable peace but also from its shared history and cultural practices throughout the region. Turkey’s efforts could strengthen the efforts of the international community to integrate BiH into European and trans-Atlantic bodies.
In the past year Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has introduced a new-found dynamism and assertiveness in Turkish foreign policy in the Western Balkans, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in particular, without changing its main orientation. This new policy has already produced concrete results between Bosnia and Serbia. Turkey is not new to the region and has shared history and cultural practices. The efforts of Turkey come in a very timely manner as ethnic tensions are running high before the general elections in October 2010 and the road to EU membership seems as elusive as ever.
Bosnia-Herzegovina had been one of the most important strongholds of the Ottoman Empire against Austria-Hungary for more than 400 years. Cities like Sarajevo and Mostar grew into regional urban centers of culture and trade during this period. Some Bosnians played critical roles in the Ottoman Empire’s political history during this time, with administrators, such as Ferhat-pasa Sokolovic and Osman Gradascevic, and grand viziers, such as the influential Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic, coming from that region.
However, the 18th and 19th centuries were plagued by military defeats and several revolts within Bosnia by Christian groups and local aristocrats who were the losers in the modernization reforms of Istanbul. The chaos spread rapidly and absorbed all the Balkan states and the Great Powers, and ultimately forced the Ottomans to surrender administration of Bosnia to Austria-Hungary with the Treaty of Berlin in 1878.
The Republic of Turkey tried to maintain cordial relations with Yugoslavia. The Balkan Entente of 1934, signed during the presidency of Kemal Atatürk, included Yugoslavia as one of the main pillars of a security framework among the Balkan states in an era of rising militarism and authoritarianism in Europe. In the 1950s the Menderes government in Turkey agreed to accept Muslim citizens from Yugoslavia (mainly Albanians and Bosniaks from the Sanjak region) as Turkish immigrants to close the technical know-how gap of the young Republic. In return Tito agreed to open Turkology departments in a number of universities across Yugoslavia and provide positive discrimination towards Yugoslav citizens of Turkish origin. In 1954 Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia signed a tripartite military alliance whereby the parties promised immediate military assistance in case of an intervention against any of these countries. This was a very strategic move on the side of Yugoslavia as it feared an imminent intervention from the Soviet Union after having decided to pursue independent policies from the eastern bloc. During the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. The Turkish president at the time, Turgut Özal, saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity for Turkey to follow its own independent foreign policy built on shared culture and history in the larger Eurasian region, in which the Western Balkans held a unique place. Unfortunately, the war in the former Yugoslavia forced Turkey to adapt a more passive approach. During the Bosnian war Turkey called for NATO intervention to end the bloodshed while some Turkish civic initiatives provided financial assistance to Bosnians fighting against the Serbian paramilitaries. During the war in 1994 Turkey helped broker an alliance between the Croats and the Bosniaks against the Serbian offensive by offering to build Zagreb-Rijeka highway in partnership with the joint consortium of Turkish ENKA and the American Bechtel.