A Century of Turkey’s Balkan Policy

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Turkey is viewed as a strong and reliable partner in the Balkans. As long as Turkey maintains this image, Turkish-Balkan relations will continue to grow.

The Balkans are one of the regions adjoining Turkey and have a historical and emotional significance for the country as for centuries they constituted the central lands of the Ottoman Empire. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey itself is also a Balkan country. Turkey, along other regional powers, compete for influence in the Balkans. How did Turkey approach the Balkans throughout the 100 years of the Republic? What were its priorities and objectives? What were the main continuities and changes in the policies pursued towards the region?

Early Republican Period (1923-1945): National Security

When the Republic was founded, there were five independent states in the Balkans, namely Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Romania. After years of destructive wars, both Turkey and the Balkan states needed restructuring in every field. With the exception of Bulgaria, all Balkan states and Turkey were in favor of maintaining the status quo and stability in the region in order to focus on internal reforms.

What is more, with the demilitarization of the Straits and Thrace, Turkey was vulnerable to an attack from the west, and sought to strengthen relations with its neighbors in the Balkans to establish a lasting peace. With this in mind, Turkey did not claim any rights over its former territories in the Balkans, and between 1923 and 1925, it established diplomatic relations with all Balkan countries and signed friendship treaties with Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.

After encountering problems over issues such as the implementation of the population exchange and the election of a new Greek Orthodox patriarch, relations with Greece finally took a positive turn in the late 1920s. With the mutual visits of the prime ministers and the signing of a series of agreements in 1930-1934, Turkey and Greece turned a page in their relations and became two friendly countries in the region.

During the interwar period, Turkey resorted to both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to prevent the revisionist influence of the great powers  on the Balkans. Bilateral agreements were signed with Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Greece guaranteeing the inviolability of borders. Turkey also welcomed the idea of a “Balkan Union” first put forward by Greek statesmen and participated in the first Balkan conference in 1930 and organized the second one in 1931. In 1934, Turkey become one of the signatories of the Balkan Entente.

Although the entente was expected to bring long-lasting stability and interdependence, it was soon weakened when Yugoslavia and Romania came under the influence of Germany. After the outbreak of World War II, despite all of Turkey’s efforts, the Balkan countries failed to develop a common measure to preserve the status quo. Given the situation, Turkey focused on its own national interests and security. Through bilateral diplomacy, it ensured the non-aggression of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and Germany, and hence prevented the possibility of an attack from the Balkans. Despite all its concerns, Turkey did not object to the occupation of the Balkans by Germany and later the Soviet Union.

First Half of the Cold War (1945-1965): A Western-Oriented Policy

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was the biggest security threat to Turkey. While communist governments were established in all Balkan states except Greece, the rapprochement between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was perceived by Ankara as the emergence of a Slavic-Orthodox bloc in the Balkans. If the communists won the civil war in Greece, Turkey would be surrounded from the north and west by the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Under these circumstances, Ankara saw getting closer to the Western bloc as a solution. Although it initially favored the idea of a “Mediterranean Entente” to be supported by Britain or France, Ankara, taking into account the growing U.S. interest in Turkey, later preferred to become a direct member of the Western bloc. Thus, Turkey adopted a foreign policy in full harmony with the United States, whose support was seen as vital against the Soviet threat.

After Yugoslavia broke away from the Eastern Bloc, Washington encouraged Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia to come together under a security pact. Consequently, the Balkan Pact was established in 1954. Ankara’s expectation from the pact was to create deterrence against the Eastern Bloc with the support of NATO. However, with the normalization of Yugoslavia’s relations with the Soviet Union and the deterioration of Turkish-Greek relations due to the Cyprus issue, the pact turned into a dead letter within a few years.

Second Half of the Cold War (1965-1989): Cautious Rapprochement

Turkey had anchored its security interests to the Western bloc due to threat perceptions from the Soviet Union and the Middle East, and did not pursue a specific policy towards the Balkans until the mid-1960s. Its cooperation with the region was largely limited to the Balkan Pact, which was almost an extension of NATO, rather than a genuinely regional initiative. During these years, thinking the Soviets were behind it, Turkey rejected the cooperation plan proposed towards the Balkan countries by Romanian Prime Minister Chivu Stoica.

While Turkey was distancing itself from the communist regimes in the Balkans, Greece started to improve its bilateral relations with these states and even found support on the Cyprus issue. Resulting from the disappointment towards the U.S. caused by the Jupiter affair and the Johnson Letter, Turkey realized that it was necessary to formulate its own policy towards countries outside the Western world. Thus, it began to pursue a more active foreign policy towards the Balkans and the Soviet Union. In the second half of the 1960s, the first high-level visits of the Cold War period took place in Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania.

Turkey’s main priority in its rapprochement with the Balkan countries was to find support for itself on the issue of Cyprus. Additionally, the foundations of bilateral cooperation in areas such as transportation, law, trade, and culture were laid during this period. However, despite these positive developments, Turkey continued to act cautiously in the Balkans. The different political and economic regimes of the countries limited the potential for relations and the rise of left-wing anarchist terrorism in Turkey kept suspicions of communist regimes alive. As a result, despite constant messages of “mutual respect,” “friendship,” and “good neighborliness,” no significant deepening of relations took place between Turkey and its neighbors.

In the 1980s, while relations with other Balkan countries remained calm, there were years of tensions with Greece due to disputes over the Aegean Sea and with Bulgaria over the forced assimilation of the Turkish minority. Although problems with Bulgaria were quickly resolved after the ousting of Todor Zhivkov in November 1989, crises with Greece continued into the 1990s.

Post-Cold War Period (1989-2002): Proactive Approach

The end of the Cold War marked an important turning point in the 100-year history of Turkey’s relations with the Balkans. Until then, Turkey had approached the Balkans with the priority of protecting national security due to various risk perceptions, and in this framework, it was difficult to find a common ground for cooperation.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, there was no longer any threat of expansionism or revisionism against Turkey through the Balkans, and the emergence of new independent states and the transition of the former communist countries to liberal democracy offered Turkey ample opportunities to establish itself as a key political and economic power in the region.

During this period, Turkey pursued an active policy to contribute to the prosperity and stability of the Balkans. Within the first few years of the 1990s, friendship, good neighborliness, and cooperation agreements were signed with Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Macedonia. Turkey provided support to these countries, especially in terms of development aid and military training.

After the outbreak of the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey made intensive efforts on international platforms to prevent the massacres of Muslims and later mediated between Bosniaks and Croats. Turkey played an active role in multilateral operations to resolve the crises in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and participated in international missions to build and maintain peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

In the second half of the 1990s, Turkey took participated in the formation of regional institutions and mechanisms established to enhance security and cooperation in the Balkans. While supporting the development of Balkan countries through the provision of loans and grants, Turkey sought to strengthen economic ties through the signing of bilateral agreements and the establishment of bilateral business councils.

Although in the 1990s Turkey clearly shifted to a proactive policy in the Balkans, a number of internal and external factors prevented the deepening of relations beyond a certain level. Domestic problems such as political instability, economic crises, and terrorism made it difficult for Turkey to focus on the Balkans. Due to the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and the international embargoes imposed on the Milošević regime, relations with Serbia, one of the most important actors in the region, remained frozen or ad hoc for nearly a decade. While disputes in the Aegean Sea brought Turkey and Greece to the brink of war in 1996, the two countries also competed for influence in the Balkans throughout the 1990s.

AK Party Period (2002-2023): Golden Age of Relations

The period of AK Party governments that began in 2002 can be seen as the beginning of intensive and sustained policies towards the entire Balkans, which were the result of a number of regional and domestic developments. The establishment of peace in Kosovo and the fall of the Milošević regime launched an era of peace and normalization in the Balkans. With the EU membership target, Balkan countries and Turkey accelerated their efforts on domestic reform and regional cooperation, while the rapprochement with Greece ended bilateral crises and competition over the Balkans.

In the general elections held in November 2002, a single party came to power in Turkey for the first time since 1991. The political stability brought about by the single-party government provided Turkey with the opportunity to develop long-term policies at home and abroad, and paved the way for a rapid economic growth with the EU membership target and the fiscal and economic policies implemented after the 2001 economic crisis. Thus, with its growing political and economic capacity, Turkey began to establish a multifaceted presence in the Balkans, using new channels and instruments.

In the fields of public and cultural diplomacy, institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, the Yunus Emre Institute, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, the Türkiye Diyanet Foundation, and the Turkish Maarif Foundation have carried out many social, cultural, religious, and educational activities in the Balkans. In order to address the regional demand for news, Anadolu Agency and TRT started to provide services in Balkan languages.

Meanwhile as a result of the development of communication and transportation facilities and the increasing support of official institutions, municipalities, and NGOs from Turkey, Turkey became increasingly engaged in the Balkans. While the activities of civil actors contributed to Turkey’s visibility in the region, Turkish TV series, which were watched with great interest, increased the interest of Balkan people in Turkish culture.

Source : Politicstoday