Erdogan Is Making the Ottoman Empire Great Again
Turkey is leveraging tradition to expand its power in Europe — but the history cuts both ways.
SARAJEVO — Not every Turkish president can come to Sarajevo and get an endorsement from both heaven and earth, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to pull it off. At a pre-election rally for Erdogan in the Bosnian capital last month, Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency and son of the country’s first president, called on Turks across Europe — and especially the 5,000 Turkish citizens estimated by Bosnia’s Turkish Embassy to be living in the country — to support Erdogan in his quest to be re-elected in Sunday’s snap elections.
While the endorsement wasn’t much of a surprise, given that he and Erdogan have long been political allies, Izetbegovic claimed on stage that Erdogan had the backing of an even loftier figure: God himself. “Today the Turkish nation has a person sent by God. He is Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Izetbegovic proclaimed in Olympic Hall, the arena constructed for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games. “God has sent nations one person to return them to their religion. We had Alija Izetbegovic,” said Bakir, referring to his father, apparently also sent by God. “We remain standing with God’s help.”
The younger Izetbegovic’s words paint a picture of a resurgent great game, one in which Turkey, under Erdogan’s watchful gaze, is Bosnia’s best friend and its “big brother,” protecting the largest Muslim population in the Balkans from its enemies. With tense Turkish and Bosnian elections both looming on the horizon, the question is whether Turkey’s newfound role in Bosnia is an instance of great-power diplomacy or a mere smoke-and-mirrors show.
In the minds of many Bosniaks, who make up half the population of the country, Turkey has long been their best friend, not to mention a protector. Rizvan Halilovic, chairman of Bosfor, an organization for Turkish-Bosnian friendship, is eager to list off in detail the long-standing historical, cultural, and religious links between Turkey and Bosnia, which was part of the Ottoman Empire for more than four centuries. That legacy is still on full display throughout the country: Ottoman-era mosques and their trademark minarets — some reconstructed after the 1990s war with Turkish help — dot many of Bosnia’s small towns and villages, and Turkish influence on the local language and cuisine is unmistakable.
Halilovic laments how, in the past, a weakened Ottoman Empire wasn’t able to shield its northernmost province from the ambitions of rival powers. When an 1878 treaty granted the administration of Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he says, “Turkey was called the ‘sick man of Europe.’ … As an older brother, it couldn’t protect Bosnia,” says Halilovic. “Now it can.” A popular myth among pro-Turkish Bosnians holds that the former wartime president told Erdogan on his deathbed to “look after Bosnia.”
It’s not hard to see why many Bosnians think this is the case. Turkey visibly invests in education, with two privately funded universities in Sarajevo alone; Erdogan has also pledged $3.5 billion euros for the construction of a highway connecting Sarajevo and Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia. Growing numbers of Turkish tourists flock to Bosnia every year, and Turkish Airlines offers 18 weekly flights to Istanbul. Recent years have also seen the appearance of two strongly pro-Turkish publications in Bosnia; the weekly Stav and online portal Faktor. TIKA, the Turkish development agency, has become the most visible Turkish government actor in the country due to its restoration of Ottoman architectural heritage, including bridges and several mosques destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1990s.
Others are keen to point to Turkish support for newly independent Bosnia during the war in the 1990s, though analysts say that Turkey’s role at the time wasn’t anything beyond what other NATO countries offered at the time. Halilovic isn’t the only Bosnian with a rosy view of Turkey’s role here. In a poll released this week by the International Republican Institute (IRI), 76 percent of Bosniaks said they had a positive perception of Turkey’s role in Bosnia. No other foreign power, among any of Bosnia’s three constituent ethnic groups, has the same popularity as Turkey; 51 percent of Bosniaks see Ankara as the country’s greatest ally. Conversely, 41 percent of Bosnian Serbs, who are concentrated in the Republika Srpska entity led by the boisterous Milorad Dodik, see Russia as their greatest ally.
Sarajevo-based analyst Hamdi Firat Buyuk argues that many Bosniaks feel vulnerable given recent history, and feel that they need a protector. “The Serbs have Russia, the Croats have Germany and Croatia,” says Buyuk. “Bosniaks should have someone.” Turkey backs this protection up with a significant amount of spending in Bosnia — at least in the imaginations of many Bosnians. According to IRI’s poll, one in five Bosnians and more than one in three Bosniaks think Turkey is the largest investor in the country.
But Turkey’s far from the deep-pocketed investor many Bosnians make it out to be. While trade turnover has increased in recent years, the Bosnian government’s own data indicates Turkey is nowhere near the top of the list of biggest investors in the country: Turkey doesn’t even rank on the list of top 10 sources of foreign direct investment dating to 1994. In 2016, Turkey managed to crack the top 10 with a paltry 15.4 million euros, outpaced by countries with considerably smaller global ambitions like Slovenia. And, for all Turkey’s rhetoric about helping its co-religionists, analysts like Dimitar Bechev, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who focuses on Russian and Turkish influence in southeastern Europe, repeatedly point out that Ankara spends more money across the border in Orthodox Serbia. As Bosnian journalist and former ambassador to Turkey Hajrudin Somun put it in an interview with Balkan news channel N1 last year: “Turkey gives Bosnia love, and Serbia investments.”
Bosnia’s largest investors, in reality, are the member states of the European Union. But even as 75 percent of Bosnians “strongly support” or “somewhat support” Bosnia’s accession to the EU, analysts say that Turkey has been more effective at winning the hearts and minds of at least some locals. In part, that’s because of the EU’s pattern of inattention and vague promises to the western Balkans. “As long as you have Balkan countries kind of floating in the air when it comes to the EU, countries like Russia and Turkey will come in,” says Alida Vracic, the executive director of the Sarajevo think tank Populari and an expert on Turkish-Bosnian relations.
Osman Topcagic, the former head of the Bosnian Directorate for European Integration, says the EU isn’t doing enough to keep Bosnia on the path toward accession. “They have influence but they are not using it,” says Topcagic, who was Bosnia’s first ambassador to the EU in Brussels. Part of the problem is that the EU hasn’t done a good job of explaining what it does to ordinary Bosnians, reflects Rasidagic. The EU’s huge investments in Bosnia, including direct aid, aren’t always heavily promoted, he adds. EU-financed projects, Rasidagic continues, are also often in less high-profile areas, like water infrastructure, and aren’t as easy a sell compared to Turkey’s investments in visible, high-profile projects like mosque reconstruction. “You don’t see the pipes,” says Rasidagic, “but you see the mosques.”
Compared to the EU’s abstract contributions in the form of “institutional support” and “capacity building,” Turkish investments in their country seem more concrete to the average Bosnian, quite literally. “What’s the highest bank building in Bosnia? Ziraat Bank,” says Buyuk, referencing Turkey’s second-biggest bank, which was founded in the Ottoman Balkans in the 19th century. “Whose are the biggest restoration projects in Bosnia? TIKA’s. What’s the biggest cultural center in Sarajevo? The Yunus Emre building,” says Buyuk, referencing the first foreign branch of the Turkish cultural center opened in central Sarajevo in 2009. “[Erdogan] does the same in all foreign countries,” says Buyuk, who stresses that Turkey prioritizes the visibility of its investments, whether in Bosnia or beyond.
Erdogan hasn’t discouraged Bosnia’s EU aspirations. When Erdogan spoke in Sarajevo before Bosniak well-wishers and members of the Turkish diaspora from across Europe, he stressed that he cherished their “Europeanness.” Turkey is a NATO member and has harbored EU membership aspirations of its own, and has been a strong proponent of Balkan states joining both organizations.
“Turkey firmly supports the NATO and EU membership process of [Bosnia and Herzegovina],” a spokesperson from the Turkish Embassy in Sarajevo told Foreign Policy by email. Turkey “considers its support as a complementary effort to those carried out by EU countries” for Bosnia’s eventual entry into the EU and NATO. The embassy stressed that “Turkey is not [in Bosnia] to seek influence, but to encourage political stability for the sake of the entire region.” However, Turkey’s accession to the EU has stalled under Erdogan’s leadership. That has contributed to a shift in Ankara’s soft power strategy, with a greater emphasis on points of difference with the EU — especially, Erdogan’s image as a strong and protecting leader.
Erdogan’s state-run media, for its part, is quick to promote the idea that Turkey is the natural protector of Bosnia’s Muslims. The Turkish Radio and Television Corporation recently started airing a hagiographic miniseries about Alija Izetbegovic, Bakir’s father, simply titled Alija. Billboards promoting the miniseries are easy to spot in central Sarajevo, where the series is broadcast with subtitles in Bosnian. But the show is primarily targeted at viewers back in Turkey, whom Erdogan wants to persuade that the Balkans are within “the spiritual boundaries of Turkey.” (The well over 1 million Turkish citizens with Bosniak heritage — descendants of Bosnian Muslims who migrated to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey over the course of the 20th century — already agree with that sentiment.)
Whatever’s Erdogan’s machinations in the region may be, says Rasidagic, Turkey doesn’t offer Bosnians any plausible alternative to the EU; there’s no unique Turkish model or long-term prospect other than eventual EU accession. Rasidagic also notes also many Bosniaks are wary of Erdogan’s crackdown on civil rights and hardly see Turkey as a model. (And despite Erdogan’s laudatory rhetoric, Bosnia has not yet given him the one thing he desperately wants: followers of the cleric Fethullah Gulen movement, which Ankara blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016. In April, a Bosnian court rejected a request by Turkey to extradite a teacher with alleged links to the movement. Buyuk notes that this came after Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s state visit, and interprets it as an attempt to “check [the behavior] of Bosnia’s courts” in handing over suspected Gulenists, to no avail.)
Vracic cautions against overestimating positive sentiments in Bosnia toward Turkey. While a slim majority of Bosniaks surveyed in IRI’s poll considered Turkey Bosnia’s greatest ally, only 13 percent of Bosnian Croats and 5 percent of Bosnian Serbs agreed. Likewise, while 76 percent of Bosniaks said Turkey’s role in the country was a positive one, only 39 percent of Bosnian Croats and 28 percent of Bosnians Serbs see Turkey’s role positively. As political scientist Esref Kenan Rasidagic stressed to FP, Bosniaks themselves aren’t a united front when it comes to Turkey. Many Bosniaks do look askance at Turkey under Erdogan, turned off by his crackdowns on civil rights and dissenters; and the historical resonances also cut another way for some Bosniaks, who take a less rose-tinted view of Ottoman rule. Still, a small but vocal minority “uncritically support” anything Turkey does, says Rasidagic. “For them, Turkey is like an alter ego,” she adds.
What’s clear is that Bosnia’s political landscape is volatile ahead of the country’s elections. The Croat leader of the country’s tripartite presidency, Dragan Covic, is pushing for an amended election law which might in practice spell the creation of a third territorial entity for the country’s ethnic Croats. That would mean revising the Dayton Agreement, which has kept the country at peace since 1995 — peace being an obvious pretext for any hopes of joining the EU. Meanwhile, Dodik, who is no longer eligible to serve another term as the leader of the Bosnian Serb entity, has declared that he will “be president of something” come October.
As Bosnia’s path toward Europe feels increasingly out of reach, the draw of EU membership may no longer be enough to distract from grievances with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which brought peace but little satisfaction to nationalist politicians on all sides. It’s an environment where external actors like Turkey can swoop in to take advantage of dissatisfaction and disillusion, analysts warn, even if they sell more show than substance. “They play on this huge feeling of frustration with what we want,” says Rasidagic.
Semir Mujkic contributed to this report, which was enabled by Reporters in the Field, a Robert Bosch Stiftung program hosted with n-ost, a media network.
Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.