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Erdogan’s Meddling in the Balkans

12:09 PM, Oct 11, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The soft-Islamist Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (known by its Turkish initials as the AKP) has expansive foreign-policy ambitions. In addition to its embrace of the Hamas regime in Gaza and accompanying criticism of Israel, Ankara has sent naval and air units into the eastern Mediterranean in a bid to intimidate Cyprus from exploiting, with U.S. economic partners, the divided island’s offshore energy assets. Turkish military maneuvers near Cyprus parallel threats of a similar seaborne campaign to shield another Gaza flotilla operation against Israel’s maritime security patrols. Turkey has acted ambiguously toward the NATO missile-defense system intended for protection from Russian or Iranian attack, after indicating cooperation with the plan developed by the Western alliance.

In more benign-appearing efforts, Turkey has switched from supporting the bloody dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria to declaring an arms embargo against Damascus, and has sought a leading role in aid to post-Qaddafi Libya. But a key aspect of AKP’s efforts at a “neo-Ottoman” revival of national prestige is typically neglected by Western observers. That is, Erdogan has sojourned repeatedly as a triumphant patron in the former Balkan provinces of the Turkish empire, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and, most recently, Macedonia. All these countries were ruled from Constantinople until the last quarter of the 19th century, in the Bosnian case, and the first decades of the 20th, in Kosovo and Macedonia.

At the end of September, Erdogan travelled for two days to Macedonia, which has a Turkish-speaking minority of at least 80,000 people, or up to 4 percent of its population of two million. Turkey has raised its investment profile significantly in Macedonia as well as the other Balkan states, in competition with Russia, which views them as part of its post-Communist Slav sphere of influence. The Macedonian government claims Turkey’s support in the long-festering quarrel with Greece—Turkey’s main international rival—over the very name “Macedonia,” which Athens asserts may only be applied to its own northern territory.

The AKP offensive in the Balkans is cultural as well as economic and geopolitical, involving Turkish government subsidies for new local high schools and universities. Further, Turkish officials call for the Balkan Muslim-majority nations to revise how they teach the history of Ottoman dominance over them. In Kosovo, Turkish education minister Omer Dincer, during a mid-August visit, asked for removal of material from schoolbooks that treated negatively more than 500 years of Turkish rule in the Albanian lands, from the 14th to the 20th centuries. AKP foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu likewise complained during a Kosovo tour two weeks later that Turkish power was portrayed critically in local textbooks.

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