Erdoğan stirs the Balkan cauldron
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made it apparent after coming to power that he does not like diplomacy or diplomats. Whether it is diplomatic or not, he likes to speak openly and his supporters love him for it. The problem is that the world turns on diplomacy. This, however, has not prevented him from putting his foot in it and making the administration of a coherent foreign policy more difficult for Ankara.
Addressing a crowd of Kosovars in Prizren on Oct. 23, Erdoğan said, “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo” as he made the four finger “Rabia” sign that has become the symbol of the anti-coup protests in Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In this way, he not only tried to touch a nationalist chord, but also an Islamist one. That is a dangerous thing to do for a Turkish leader in the Balkans. The Kosovars listening to him were happy of course, but Erdoğan’s remarks reverberated in Belgrade and beyond.
The Kosovo question is, after all, a highly sensitive one for the Balkans and even within the EU where not all members consider this predominantly Albanian region of the former Yugoslavia to be independent of Serbia. As any diplomat could have foreseen, a demand for an apology from Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic came instantly.
“The scandal made by the Turkish prime minister in Prizren town is a flagrant and brutal violation of good and friendly relations,” Nikolic said in a statement published on his official website. He added that “The ideas of Kemal Atatürk are no longer the ideas of the leadership of Turkey” and said he was pulling out of talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey on post-war Balkan stability.
There was even a reaction from Austria, which also has interests in the Balkans. The leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache, didn’t waste the opportunity to hit at Erdoğan. He said, “Turkey is not Kosovo, Kosovo is not Turkey” and indicated that Ankara’s neo-Ottoman schemes would not work.
The reaction of a racist European politician is of no importance to Turkey of course, but the reaction of Belgrade should be. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – whose principle area of interest has always been the Balkans – spent a lot of time and effort to improve ties between the two countries.
These efforts have not gone to waste, and Davutoğlu has always taken pride in this.
It was also just a few weeks ago that Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ was in Belgrade to further develop ties. One ill-considered undiplomatic remark by Erdoğan for the sake of populism now risks undoing the good work.
In order to prevent that, Davutoğlu jumped in immediately to control the damage by arguing that Erdoğan’s words had been taken out of context and misinterpreted by nationalist circles in Serbia.
“Turkey targets developing good relations with Serbia and has the same relationship with the rest of the Balkans. Prime Minister Erdoğan talked about the shared fate of people of the Balkans in his speech. Balkan countries should act together for peace and stability,” he told TRT 1 on Oct. 27.
Adding that he had a phone conversation with his Serbian counterpart, Ivan Mrkic, that morning, Davutoğlu said, “I told my dear friend that when we come to Belgrade we also call it our second home.”
Davutoğlu indicated that Turkey and Serbia are aware of their difference on Kosovo, saying, “Both sides are continuing their relations by accepting this difference.”
Davutoğlu also added that Turkey never used “expansionist, nostalgic language,” going on to say, “However, we use the warmest expressions to describe our closeness.” It remains to be seen if these words will be accepted as the “apology” that President Nikolic is demanding.
If not, Erdoğan’s remarks could be the prelude to losing friends in the Balkans at a time when Ankara has hardly any regime left in the Middle East that it can truly call a friend. As usual, it will be up to the diplomats Erdoğan despises to set right what he has toppled.