Turkey's EU Membership's Possible Impacts on the Balkans

By Dr. Sedat Laciner

End of ‘balkanization’?

In the Balkans, Greece is an EU member, while Croatia, Rumania, and Bulgaria are set to become members in a very near future. Greece has been working for a long time to play a significant role in the EU’s dealings with the Balkans. However, the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, along with the intermittent feeling of uneasiness has illustrated the shortcoming of the policies that were hitherto pursued. Unfortunately, the EU’s role in the Balkan tragedies cannot be neglected. The EU failed to appeal to expectations during the carnage reminiscent of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The clashes in Kosovo and the question of Macedonia acted as litmus tests for the EU’s policies towards the Balkans, with the EU unable to do much without the NATO and the US. When the EU attempted to do anything, it was usually too late or too little.

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It can be seen that the first impact of Turkey’s EU membership will be on the Balkans by restricting the ethnic tension in the region. Despite not being an EU member and its relatively limited economic and military capabilities, Turkey supported all NATO, US, and EU policies since 1990 and partook in the peace-making and peace-keeping operations by sending troops. It is a remarkable fact that Turkish security forces operating in the former Yugoslav republics are one of the most effective forces and are greeted warmly by the local populace. This owes mainly to fact that the Balkans were the Ottoman lands for the centuries, though now Turkey does not have any territorial claims in the region. Furthermore, Turkey’s another advantage in the region is that the Turkish minorities in the other Balkan states (about 2 million people) have not sought secession from the countries in which they lived during the hostilities, nor did they have taken sides in the conflicts. Once again, Balkan Moslems feel themselves close to Turkey. It is not a coincidence that Moslem Bosnians, Albanians, and Macedonians fled to Turkey during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Following the Cold War, Albania looked upon Turkey as its strongest ally in the region. This owes to cultural and religious affinity and the existence of hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens of Albanian origins as much as to the Ottoman legacy. The affinity was reciprocal and Turkish investors built important industrial and educational facilities in Albania. Other than the ethnic Turks and Moslems, Turkey’s relations with many of the region’s Christian peoples are also very intimate since the 1990s. Especially the relationship between Turkey and Bulgaria is friendlier than ever. In the same line, it can be said that relations with Rumania and Moldavia are perfectly harmonious. Especially with Turkey’s support for Rumania’s NATO membership and increasing investments by Turkish corporations fomented a kind of refreshing zephyr. The relationship between Macedonia and Turkey is almost at a stage of strategic partnership. Anticipating significant threats from the surrounding countries, Macedonia endeavors to develop its political and economic dealings with Turkey. Also, the Turkish minority in Macedonia has a special role in improving the relations.

Serbia is the one country that Turkey would have had problematic dealings. During the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo following Yugoslavia’s disintegration, the story of Serbian militia attacking Moslems, addressing them as ‘Turks’ and using phrases such as “We evened the score with the Turks” is quite telling regarding the Serbs’ adherence to the past. However, it can be said that a credible racial or hostile enmity towards Serbs did not materialize in Turkey. In contrast to other parts of the world, Turkish reaction was not towards the Serbs as a nation, but towards the atrocities committed. As a matter of fact, while Turkey led the international community in order to halt the tragedies in Bosnia and Kosovo, it was so careful in confronting the Serbian administration during the crises that Turkish public opinion was infuriated with its Foreign Ministry’s soft attitude. Turkey worked hard in lieu with Serbia for the conflict to come to an end and later strove to improve the commercial ties between the two countries. Another issue that facilitated a convergence in Turkish-Serbian relations was the transit passage of Turkish citizens working in Europe and Turkish transporters en route to Western Europe. As a result, even though some differences exist, Turkey does not pursue a policy of antagonism towards Serbia, on the contrary, seeks further reconciliation. Turkey’s role in the military operations conducted against Serbia was solely in the framework of the UN, the NATO, and the EU policies, invalidating any probability for animosity in the coming years.

In comparative perspective, Greece is a Balkan country with which Turkey has had serious problems. Greece and Turkey nearly went to war on several occasions since the 1960s over the Cyprus, and territorial and airspace rights in the Aegean Sea that separates them. Greece, in line with the Ottoman past, perceives a permanent threat from the East. A part of the Ottoman Empire until the first-half of the 19th century, Greece has since increased its territories fivefold at the expense of Turkey following its independence. Following World War I, taking advantage of the invasion of the Ottoman Empire by Allied powers, in cooperation with them, Greece attacked and overtook significant portions of Western Anatolia, including İzmir, the second largest city at that time. Greeks had expressly stated that their aim was ‘Megali Idea’, the Grand Ideal for the seizure of all Anatolia. In a dramatic fashion, the Turkish War of Liberation ended this military venture with Greece soundly losing the war. Since this war, for over 80 years, a war has not taken place between Turkey and Greece. In other words, there is no sign to justify Greece’s ‘Grand Threat From the East’ thesis. In contrast, Greece extended its lands at the expense of Turkey fivefold since its birth and even attempted to seize all of Anatolia. It can be said that at the root of the problem lies the myths of the modern nation-state. Almost all nation-states, in order to secure their national unity, have a tendency to depict some part of the past in a gloomy way and to exaggerate hostilities for a while. Especially with the case of Greece, which encountered difficulty in creating its national unity during the initial states, this is an understandable phenomenon. As a matter of reality, the ‘Turkish threat’ has played a crucial role in achieving and strengthening Greek national identity. Another reason for Greek fears is the discrepancy between Greece and Turkey. Throughout history, Turkish population has been outstandingly higher than that of Greece. To a certain extent, this disparity still continues to this day. While Turkey has a population of 70 million, Greece has about 10 million. Having the largest army in the NATO, second to the US, the Turks, who are a ‘warring nation’, could occupy Greece at any moment, for the extremist Greeks. Some groups in Greece understand Turkey’s close proximity to Greece as a clear danger. Even though ethnic strife in Cyprus has worsened these fears in the past, there is a profound decline in these sentiments in the recent years. A form of détente has come about following the earthquakes in the two countries in the summer of 1999.[1] The earthquakes reminded Greece and Turkey of the same fate that they share in the face of natural disasters. But the real source of a détente between the two countries is laden in their relations with the EU. Working hard to enter the Euro monetary zone, the Greek government has attempted great reforms at home on the one hand, and on the other, eased tensions abroad. For one thing, this understanding does not eliminate Turkey as a source of threat. At the base of the new understanding lies the assumption that as Turkey moves closer to the EU, it will abide by international rules and institutions, thus refrain from committing unforeseen actions. Indeed, this holds true for both countries, not just Turkey. As EU members, the probability of a war between Turkey and Greece will be more miniscule than ever. Through the EU, the threat perceptions of the two countries will change, communication between the parties will increase, and cooperation for mutual security will be enhanced. As such, Greece has begun seriously supporting Turkey’s EU membership in recent years and has withdrawn some of its objections.[2] Thus, those countries resorting to the same pretexts as Greece have lost a base and Turkey-EU relations have attained a healthier standing. Those actors hiding behind Greece have been revealed and some have given up their objections. In this way, the hostility towards Turkey in Greek public opinion has declined, causing sentiments of mistrust to plummet.

The greatest impact of Turkish-Greek convergence on EU foreign policy will be on the Eastern Mediterranean. As parties in the same bloc, Greece and Turkey will constitute the power center of the region and as such, regional problems will be solved more effectively. At any rate, the two countries are NATO members. But the EU is a more advanced organization and can facilitate convergence between the two countries more easily. The closer association between Greece and Turkey and the EU’s contribution has yielded its fruits starting with Cyprus. Turkey’s full membership will enhance these contributions. An area that is a focus of convergence other than Cyprus is energy. At first, steps have been taken to integrate the two countries’ electrical infrastructure. Consideration is being given to link Caucasian energy sources to Europe through a proposed Turkey-Greece pipeline.

The real contribution of Turkish-Greek convergence for the EU will be in integrating the Balkans to the Union. Almost all countries of the region aim EU membership and a significant number of them will become EU members. Especially the cases of Bulgaria and Rumania have priority. It might be thought that given these two countries’ East Bloc past, they might experience some hardship with the integration process. Events accompanying Turkey’s membership process will further strengthen Turkish and Greek involvement in the region and hasten regional cooperation and integration. This will naturally ease the burden on the EU. So far, as convergence with the EU has increased, so did mutual investments in the mentioned countries. In the same fashion, the region’s countries tackle their problems, both external and internal, with greater simplicity as they associate more closely with the EU. The case of minority rights is the most striking among these. Bulgarian Turks, who were under the threat of forced assimilation during the 1980s, enjoy extensive political and economic rights today. In parallel, there are signs of improvement for Greeks living in Turkey and Turks living in Greece. While the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Istanbul is given a green light to reopen for education, the increased ties between the Greek government and the Turks of Western Thrace is also noteworthy.

Another effect of Turkey’s accession to the EU and the EU’s enlargement towards the Balkans would be the dissolution of irredentist fantasies for good. All countries have their own extremists who dream of a greater country, even an empire. Megali Idea in Greece, Turanism in Turkey, Greater Bulgaria in Bulgaria are all just a few of the examples. But the sympathizers of such fantasies will significantly dwindle as the said countries integrate under the EU framework. Since the lands they intend to extend will indeed be extended with EU membership, these marginal groups will cease to exist as important political actors.

As these examples reveal, with Turkey’s EU membership, in the Balkans,

1-     Intra-regional integration will be strengthened,
2-     The region’s integration with the EU will be hastened,
3-     The solution of bilateral problems will be simpler,
4-     Having solved their problems, the countries of the region will be able to cross a significant divide in solving their common problems,
5-     Especially Turkish-Greek cooperation will act as a locomotive in the solution of ethnic and political conflicts in the region,
6-     Progress in democratization, human rights, and minority rights will speed up,
7-     Adventurous and irredentist currents will be enervated,
8-     Balkan states will construct their national identity not through hostility towards their neighbors, but by more constructive means.

As a result, with the burgeoning of all these factors, the expression ‘Balkanization’ could be history. In the history of the Balkans, this end is extremely near.

Historian Bernard Lewis says “In the Balkans, Ottoman Government brought unity and security in the place of previous conflict and disorder.’[3] The Balkans, for the centuries, enjoyed stability under the Ottoman years.[4] However, the Western imperial powers in the 19th century, aiming to save their Christian ‘brother nations’ from the so-called ‘Ottoman yoke’, had encouraged the ethnic uprisings in the Ottoman Balkans, and it is unfortunate that this Western involvement in the region caused Balkanization, and the region has been in ethnic clashes, bloody riots and instability after the Ottomans until the present days. Ironically the great European powers ceased the Ottoman contribution to the region in the 19th century, and now the same European powers can help to back the Turks to bring security and stability in order to put an end to the Balkanization of the region.

Editors Note: Sedat Laçiner IR lecturer and Director of the ISRO, Ankara-based think tank.


[1] Andrew Purbis, ‘Détente in the Aegean’, Time, 7 February 2000; Kinzer, Stephen, ‘Earthquakes Help Warm Greek - Turkish Relations’, The New York Times, September 13, 1999; Niels Kadritzke, ‘Greece’s Earthquake Diplomacy’, Le Monde Diplomatique, English Edition, June 2000.

[2] Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis declared officially the Greek support many times despite of a strong resistance from the extremely nationalist groups: “I confirmed the support of the Greek government and me personally for Turkey’s course towards Europe and Mr. Erdogan’s reform program”. (Helena Smith, ‘Greece to Back Turkey’s EU Bid’, The Guardian, 8 May 2004). Similarly Greece welcomed the EU Commisson’s ‘pro-Turkish’ report on Turkey’s EU bid in October 2004 while many groups in other EU countries protested the Commission’s opinion: ‘Greece Welcomes EU Report on Turkey’s Membership Bid’, AFP, 6 October 2004; ‘As a Greek, I Support Turkey’s EU Bid’, Zaman Online, 23 November 2004.

[3] Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragons, Interpreting the Middle East, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 118.

[4] For the Ottoman years in the Balkans see: Justin McCarthy, The Ottoman Peoples and the End of the Empire, (Arnold Publishers: 2001); Halil İnalcık, The Middle East & The Balkans Under The Ottoman Empire: Essays on Economy & Society, (Indiana: Indiana University, Turkish Studies, 1993); Stanford J. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume I, Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and The Decline of The Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
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