By Selin Calik Muhasilovic
The Balkans, which are crippled with many chronic issues such as minorities, deepening religious and ethnic divisions, and the Dayton Agreement, which gave an end to the bloody wars that erupted following the breakup of Yugoslavia, yet imprisoned the region to “a political deadlock,” are on the verge of a new process which will either lead to a “permanent and institutionalized stability,” or a new wave of violence.
Global actor’s intervention on “stability” grounds toward Balkan countries, in the last instance, takes place in the backup of strategic goals such as alliance axes and procurement of energy routes.
Turkey, which has deeply-rooted historical and cultural ties with the Balkans, has identified the region as one of the key elements of its foreign policy; and continues its activities in the region with an embracing perspective that is in the words of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu “not crisis but vision-focused”.
These activities are pursued in a way that goes beyond all current areas of conflict despite the “jarring voices” that have come out as a result of the recent political polarizations and hidden agendas.
Three main grounds of Turkey’s Balkans policy
Policies perused by Turkey in the region, are established based on a multilateral approach and on participating in international peace initiatives. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s 2013 strategy, the Balkans policy is being shaped based on three main axes: “High level political dialogue”, “safety for all, maximum economic integration" and “preservation of region’s multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious social structure”.
With this approach, Turkey is concentrated on the social and cultural dimensions alongside economic activities. Turkey’s focus to these soft power instruments is being perceived by region’s people as a well-intentioned step toward increasing confidence and stability.
Nevertheless, some section’s criticism and accusations without objective reality toward Turkey regarding recently increasing the Daesh threat in the Balkans, can be explained with Balkans being at the focus of covered strategic war regarding alternative energy routes and, on the other side, by the great powers’ competition in economic, politics and culture.
However, experts think that this kind of approach carries the danger of being converted to black propaganda and deepening divisions in the Balkans’ fragile multiethnic and religions structure.
TIKA’s activities in Balkans
Turkey, like the U.S., Germany and the Vatican, provides its services of education, health, humanitarian aid, restoration and providing employment in the Balkans through various institutions.
Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), one of the institutions whose presence in Balkans is mostly felt, has a wide field of activity in the region. According to the activity report made public, the sectorial distribution of projects and activities carried out by TIKA and their proportional values are as follows: 45.5 percent health, 20.49 percent administrative and civil society, 15.81 education, 14.78 cultural cooperation and restoration, 3.45 percent water and water hygiene.
Churches and monasteries are also being restored
The fact that TIKA is making public works and restoration projects for Christian places of worship in the countries as a minority is another key sign of its conducting of efforts in Balkans region with an inclusive approach without any discrimination. Within the framework, a restoration company commissioned by TIKA upon request of the Republic of Macedonia National Conservation Center handled the surveying and land works of Saint George Church near the Macedonian city of Kumanovo.
TIKA also established alarm, surveillance, fire alarm and response systems for Fojnica Fransisken Monastery in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and made the environmental planning for the Macedonian Orthodox Church Dormition of the Most Holy Virgin Mary that hosts the Christmas and Easter services of the Orthodox Christian community in the country.
Huge financial support for 5-percent minority
It is remarkable that other actors actively working in the region are usually conducting their efforts towards a goal that prioritizes the welfare and interests of a certain group. For instance, Christians in Kosovo constitute the five percent part of the Kosovar community and the Holy See are providing support to the government in opening a number of places of worship so that the Christian minority could properly perform their religious services.
Accordingly, a cathedral was built in 2010 in memory of Mother Teresa -- a key historical figure for the Christians in the region. Moreover, Catholic NGO Caritas continue its efforts including provision of social support projects for Kosovar Christians like education, health and employment with its Ferizaj-based organization that consists of 153 personnel and 400 volunteers.
U.S. efforts in Balkans
Most of the projects of the U.S., one of the most influential countries in Balkans, get completed through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and focus on health, education and employment.
USAID conducts support investments in Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro via its Support Fund for Micro entrepreneurs SEAF South Balkan Fund that it launched in 2005 in Balkan countries. Serbia-based supermarket chain GOMEX is one of the key investments that the USAID made via SEAF in the area of employment. USAID also acts in cooperation with other NGOs in the region. It provides financial support for the NGO named “Balkan Sunflowers,” which makes cultural and educational efforts, together with the Rome Education Fund founded jointly by the World Bank and Hungarian businessman George Soros.
Mosque restoration is the fourth priority
Long used as a pretext for the criticism against Turkey’s rising influence and efforts in Balkans, the efforts of mosque restoration is the top fourth priority for TIKA – which David Phillips, U.S. academician and former advisor at the Department of State, from Huffington Post mentioned in one of his latest articles.
In the article, Phillips mentioned TIKA’s restoration efforts for the places of worship that are among key elements of historical and cultural heritage in Kosovo – where ninety percent of the population is Muslim – in a baseless accusation that “religious radicalism spreads via these places of worship.”
The timing of the article – as it was written just the day after Serbia-Turkey Business Forum held on Dec 28, 2015 one of Turkey’s key strategic initiatives in Balkans – arouses suspicion that there might be some other motives behind his accusations.
"Turkey’s presence smooths out the extremism"
The experts and academicians who know and monitor the region closely agree that Turkey’s activities in Balkans have a critical importance in prevention of radical tendencies unlike the contrary criticisms and evaluations.
Within this perspective, Joseph J. Kaminski, an American Ass. Prof. at the International University of Sarajevo in Bosnia, said these kinds of counter-discourses have been increasing along with the strengthening presence of Turkey in the region.
“The number of the Kosovan Muslims joining into the radical-prone groups is not high. Its reason is that the Kosovan Muslims’ sense of religion is based on Hanafi sect along with the fact that the religious tendencies triggering the extremisms have been balanced by the temples reconstructed by Turkey as a Hanafi-based country,” said Kaminski.
Underling that his impressions on the field also confirmed his opinions, Kaminski said, “Turkey has a rich heritage across Balkans. I was in Prizren last summer. The people I met there said they had been appreciating Turkey’s efforts. Turkish language has widely been used by Prizren people and the city’s architectural style and the cafes were definitely in Ottoman style. It’s very meaningful that President Erdogan had made one of his speeches in Sep, 2013 in this city strongly clinged to the Ottoman style.”
“Turkey: The shield against religious extremism in Balkans”
Prof. Dr. Metin Izeti at the University of Tetovo in Macedonia said along with the increasing effective position of Turkey in the region, the religious and cultural activities of the NGOs have become more visible, which annoys some people and has led them to carry out incitement activities among the people living there.
“As a result of this annoyance, they try to label Turkish foreign policy as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’," said Izeti adding, “I really can’t understand what harm or danger Turkey’s activities in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Montenegro can cause in the region. It is obvious that they are sowing discord among the Balkan people who are grateful from Turkey’s efforts to maintain the cultural inheritances."
“Unlike some people said, Turkey had never carried out forceful religious activities in the region. On the contrary, Turkey has always expressed its support against the violent groups which are causing bad attributions to Islamic ideology and tried to prevent their extremisms to be spread among large masses.”
“The presence of Turkey in the region,” continued Izeti, “will definitely be the most important factor to prevent these extremisms. Turkey is the shield against religious extremism in Balkans.”
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