Turkey uses Ottoman legacy to gain more influence over the Balkans, challenging the EU position in the region

  • Agáta Paličková
  • 21.8.2019 09:35

In the Western Balkan countries we can observe a step back in national politics where the freedom of media is restricted, corruption and organized crimes flourish, and the tensions between ethnic groups are increasing. These geopolitical frictions are perceived by other states as a perfect space for their expansion and extension of their influence. The biggest players here are Turkey, Russia, China, and the Persian Gulf countries. This article describes the role of Turkey and its soft power projection in the Western Balkans.

During the last few years, Turkey has increased its influence over the Balkans and became one of the main rivals of the European Union in the region. The Balkans has always been the gateway to Europe as the only land trade route and energy corridor from Europe to the Middle East. Legacy of the Ottoman Empire still remains in the Balkans, especially due to the presence of Turkish minorities in the region. Common past, culture, religion and Turkish minorities are the key points of Turkish strategy in the Balkans.

Cultural diplomacy and soft power are used for the enhancement of social and cultural effectiveness of the strategy. Cultural diplomacy deepens the influence by spreading art, language, and education. It is crossing the limits of conventional diplomacy with the usage of cultural centers and institutes. There are currently eleven cultural centers called Yunus Emre Institute throughout the Western Balkan. In addition, Turkey established new universities (International University of Sarajevo), launched Turcology projects, set up Turkish language departments at several universities and Turkish language was implemented at several primary and secondary schools as an elective language.


Erdoğan held a large campaign rally in Sarajevo to get the attention of media and Turkish voters across Europe because EU member states refused to hold such an event. 


Soft power pervades through instruments which strategically cover different branches of diplomacy - public, foreign aid, cultural and religious affairs. One of them is TIKA - Turkish diplomatic tool for public aid, which invests a huge amount of money not only to educational programs but also into the restoration of mosques, hospitals, sport, and social facilities as well as agriculture and transportation. An embodiment of this influence is a project of the biggest mosque in the Balkans, which is in Tirana, Albania. 

A perfect example of extensive Turkish power occurred on April 2018 in Kosovo. Turkish intelligence agents deported six Turkish citizens from Kosovo to Turkey most likely on Erdoğan's order. This action happened without informing Kosovo’s prime minister, who has discharged interior minister and intelligence chief after that fact. One month after this incident Erdoğan held a large campaign rally in Sarajevo to get the attention of media and Turkish voters across Europe because EU member states refused to hold such an event. International journalists were not allowed to access the event.

Impact of media diplomacy cannot be underestimated because of the tight connection with the ruling AK party. Turkish policy is reflected in the content and agenda-setting in TV channels and soap operas, which are popular amongst the Balkan public. Soap operas from Ottoman empire just enhance the sentiment and desire for bringing this magnificent empire back again. The Turkish state broadcaster TRT is available in Western Balkan and it also provides online news in several Balkan languages. Turkey’s official Anadolu News Agency’s Balkan service is also present in the region with five offices. It covers content in major Balkan languages and local newspapers use it as a source for their news. The main aim of all Turkish media coverage is to promote Erdoğan's figure and his policy to strengthen Turkish position in the area with an emphasis on consolidating and developing relations with local governments.


Balkan countries are building economic ties with emerging investors. Authoritative powers are extending their influence and pushing at an open door.


Europe is getting nervous as its dominance wanes. The European Union invests a significant amount of money to the process of EU accession of these states. At the same time, Balkan countries are building economic ties with emerging investors. Authoritative powers are extending their influence and pushing at an open door. Relationships between local elites and the Turkish government are being built tactically. Balkan elites help to open the door in a vision of their own enrichment. Moreover, society is dubious and not united in perceiving of the process of EU accession.

If the disillusionment in society continues and the process of integration into the EU is not as smooth as they expect, Western Balkan countries could turn away from the EU and towards Turkey. Despite the accession perspective, Western Balkan politicians are giving the impression that they are very close to Turkey and in recent years they supported the Turkish government in several cases, for instance in refugee traffic control. If the accession of the states is successful, it is highly possible that these states would not restrict their close relations with Turkey. While on the other hand, they might implement Turkish policy into EU policy or use their veto power against the EU. This fact could symbolize a significant threat to practicing democracy in the area or in the discussions for refugee traffic control. Turkey-EU relation is very fragile because of Erdoğan’s anti-Europe rhetoric approach. The EU needs to show Western Balkan countries that their accession will be successful or the scenario of losing the influence in the region would be inevitable. 

About author: Agáta Paličková


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