What is behind Turkey's new assertiveness in the western Balkans? Is it an example of "neo-Ottoman" imperial dreams, economic interests or strategic goals?
Turkey's new confidence in the western Balkans and the country's growing political, economic and cultural influence have sparked divergent views about the goals of the Turkish government, formed out of the Islamist-rooted, conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Under AKP rule, Turkey has adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy in the Balkans. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has tried hard to solve political deadlock in Bosnia, offered mediation between Kosovo and Serbia, and has taken various initiatives to solve problems between the uneasy neighbors in the region.
Turkey's growing influence is not limited to politics. With its booming economy, Turkey has recently become a magnet for the Balkan people. Trade and tourism have flourished, Turkish soap operas have become the most popular TV serials in most Balkan countries, and Turkish universities have become good alternatives for the young, with hundreds of scholarships on offer.
Optimism and suspicion
Despite a growing interest and affinity in Balkan countries towards Turkey, many still look at the Turkish government's policies with suspicion, due to what they perceive as "Neo-Ottoman" schemes.
According to Erhan Türbedar, Balkan expert at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), the current debate on the Balkans and Turkey is full of myths and illusions. on both sides.
"Many people in the western Balkans believe that the Turkish government's main goal is to improve its ties with the Islamic world. They believe its policies are based on ideological goals, rather than national interests," Türbedar told DW. "We often hear criticism that Turkey is seeking expansion in the Balkans, or is trying to reach its goal through cultural, political and economic tools. This narrative has almost become an urban legend in all the Balkan countries."
Türbedar says that most of the suspicion of Turkey is rooted in history, but the lack of information about developments in Turkey in the Balkan media is exacerbating the stereotypes, fuelling suspicions further.
Distrust in Serbia
While Turkey's new assertiveness is viewed positively among the substantially Muslim populations of Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo; in Serbia, suspicions are stronger. According to a Gallup poll, fewer than 15 percent of Serbians consider Turkey a friendly power.
Türbedar stresses that Turkey's active policy in Balkans is in fact a reflection of its increased international standing, and its economic boom of the last decade.
Turkey is now the 16th-largest economy in the world and is trying to establish stable, peaceful relations with its neighbors to further facilitate its export-driven economy. Not only that, the Balkans also constitutes the main route for Turkish exports to the EU, its leading trade partner.
For Türbedar, economic interests and Turkey's domestic politics, rather than the so-called Islamist motives of the AKP government, are playing a large role in Ankara's newly active policy in the western Balkans. The Turkish public's sensitivity to the region, its expectation of becoming a regional player in international politics, is also important. And according to Türbedar, the strong "Balkan lobby" in Turkish politics is one of the biggest factors behind Turkey's new assertiveness.
Turks in the Balkans and vice versa
Official statistics show that more than one million Turks live in Balkan countries, and they constitute a bridge between these countries and Turkey. Meanwhile, there are thought to be between 10 and 15 million Turkish citizens with Balkan roots. According to Türbedar, these constitute a powerful "natural lobby," made up of associations, foundations, journalists, academics, parliamentarians, ministers, and diplomats.
While Balkans plays an important role in Turkish politics, Türbedar says that Turkish public opinion of the Balkan people is also full of myths and illusions.
"When you follow the stories only through the Turkish media, you get a sense that all the Balkan countries have a huge sympathy toward Turkey. You start thinking that Turkish diplomacy is finding success in the Balkans, solving almost all the problems," said Türbedar. "In terms of domestic politics, creating such a perception is a success. The majority of Turkish people believe in this narrative. But when you go to Balkan countries, you see that the reality is very different."
As the Balkans continue to influence Turkish domestic policies, the main Turkish opposition, the secular and leftist Republican People's Party (CHP) has also taken a new initiative. Its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu visited Bosnia-Herzegovina early this month, accompanied by a high level delegation.
CHP Vice President Faruk Logoglu, who was among the delegation, told DW that the government's foreign policy was creating a perception that Turkey is achieving new prestige in the region. But for the mid- to long-term, Logoglu said, this may harm Turkish foreign policy, relations with the countries in the region.
"The Balkan policy of the AKP government has two main dimensions. The first is neo-Ottomanism, and the second dimension is a religious approach," he said. "As CHP, we are against this current AKP policy. That is why we visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. We are for an approach guided by the principles and values of social democracy."
Despite such criticism, Turkish officials are using each and every opportunity to underscore that Turkey has no intention other than to ensure peace and stability in the western Balkans.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry's deputy undersecretary, Ambassador Hasan Gogus, told DW that Turkey's even closer ties with the Balkans is promising stability and prosperity in the region.
"Turkey has close ties with the Balkan countries, based on our common history. For centuries, Turkish people lived together, side by side, with the peoples of this region," said Gogus. "Today we have kinship ties with communities in most of the western Balkan countries. So claims of a hidden, neo-Ottoman agenda are not true. We are taking lessons from history, and we are working with a forward-looking vision."
Turkey says its active policy towards the Balkans has four main pillars. These include high level political dialogue, security for all, envisaging mutual economic interdependence and the protection of the region's multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious social fabric.
According to Gogus, permanent peace in the region can only be achieved through enduring stability, and this can be realized through ever closer ties among the countries in the region. He believes Turkey and the countries in the region have a common future under the umbrella of NATO and the EU.
"One of the main goals of our foreign policy toward the region is the integration of all countries to Transatlantic institutions," Gogus said. "We support all the region's membership of NATO and the EU. We are not making any discrimination. We are supporting Montenegro's membership to the NATO; just as we are supporting Bosnia-Herzegovina's membership. When all the countries in the region have finally become members of the EU, we will have permanent peace and stability. Current borders will lose their meaning."