Turkey before and during the time of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tried to conduct active diplomacy in virtually all aspects of its geography, where the Balkans retain a high relevance. This direction of Turkish foreign policy is determined by several factors: geographical proximity; the history of Ottoman rule; the course of European integration; NATO membership; and the strategy of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism.
The current fourth generation of Anatolian Turks is the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I and at its peak governed practically all of Southeastern Europe (including the Balkan Peninsula), among other regions. Serbia, like other Balkan (South Slavic) countries and peoples, was occupied by the Ottomans.
As is well known, the weakening and collapse of the Kingdom of Serbia in the second half of the 14th century resulted in the rise of a number of principalities and deadly feuds. The latter made Serbia an easy prey for the Ottoman sultans, beginning with Orhan Ghazi and continuing with his successors Murad I and Bayazet I. As a result of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and the capture of Serbian Prince Lazar, the Serbs recognized the authority of the Ottoman sultan. The vassal status of the Serbs from the Turks, Hungarians and Poles lasted in fact until the fall of Constantinople and the dissolution of Byzantium. Fatih Sultan Mehmed, who went down in history as the conqueror of Constantinople and the founder of the Ottoman Empire, did not accept the vassal status of the Balkan peoples (including the Serbs) and between 1455 and 1459 conquered their capital city Smederevo, turning Serbia into his province.
Having been defeated and having lost their independence, at different periods of Ottoman rule, the Serbs never stopped trying to restore their statehood. Each war the Turks fought against the Christian states gave the Serbs hope of liberation and became a reason to defect to the Christian side. For example, during the Thirteen Years’ War of 1593–1606; the War of Candia or the Fifth Ottoman–Venetian War, 1683–1700 war; and the Austro-Turkish wars of 1716 and 1788. However, it was not until Russia entered the Balkan battlefield that there was a serious chance of rescuing Serbia from the Ottoman yoke. The Russo-Turkish wars sparked the start of the Serbian freedom movement uprisings of 1804 and 1815, which eventually resulted in the sultan’s declaration of Serbian sovereignty in 1830 and the foundation of the Principality of Serbia.
The Kosovo issue stretches back to the Middle Ages as a dispute over rights between the area’s Muslim, mostly Albanian, and Christian Serbian populations. The Ottoman sultans’ goal of ethnic cleansing and religious composition change in favor of Muslims finally resulted in a change in the ethno-religious makeup in favor of Albanian Muslims. After World War II, Kosovo’s autonomy was created within Yugoslavia, with virtually the same rights as the Republic of Serbia. As a result of Josef Bros Tito’s national policy in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija in the second half of the twentieth century, the Albanian population in this province, once a historical Serbian territory, increased dramatically. By 2000, the number of Albanians in Kosovo was 88 percent and that of Serbs was 7 percent. But once the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) disintegrated in the early 1990s, a vicious ethnic conflict between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo erupted.
As a result of NATO intervention (in which Turkey, along with Britain and the United States, was the most active participant on the side of the Kosovo Albanians), in 1999 Kosovo was subjected to NATO carpet bombing and the introduction of international Kosovo Force (KFOR) into the territory. Russia, then, due to its weakness after the collapse of the USSR, could not provide significant assistance to the Serbian side to protect its interests. As a result, in 2008, the Kosovo parliament, on the basis of the UN resolution of June 10, 1999, declared the independence of the Republic of Kosovo, which to date has been recognized by 90 states, with the leadership of the United States. Turkey was among the countries that supported and recognized Kosovo’s independence.
Thus, NATO, led by the United States, set a precedent for changing established borders in Europe after World War II and in opposition to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which recognized the inviolability of modern Europe’s borders. A policy of double standards in ethno-territorial conflicts was established by Anglo-Saxon diplomacy.
Turkey took the side of Muslim Albanians in the Kosovo issue not only because of religious affinity or solidarity within the framework of NATO membership. Ankara has in recent times begun to pursue an active regional policy in the Balkans in order to increase its status as a regional power and influence on European processes.
Naturally, the Balkans, like the Caucasus, remain an explosive region (the very “powder keg”), given the continuing potential for various internal and external contradictions. At the same time, the Balkans is an important strategic region with a favorable geographical position on the way to mainland Europe, through which key trade communications, including energy ones, pass. The collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Treaty Organization (the Warsaw Pact) led to the fact that almost all former countries of the socialist commonwealth came under the protection of the West and became members of the EU and NATO, with the countries of the Balkan Peninsula being no exception.
Given the ongoing historical tensions between Turkey and nearly all of its geographical neighbors (including the Balkan nations), Ankara is working to reduce potential threats and the emergence of anti-Turkish minor and major alliances through aggressive regional diplomacy. The Ottoman Empire’s successors may need to subjugate the Serbs, according to the history of Turkish-Serbian ties.
The Balkans have traditionally been singled out for subversive activities by the Turkish intelligence service MIT and a network of Turkish Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). And if during the Cold War this confrontation was publicly motivated by the confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, in the new post-Soviet times, the ideological and political justification for Turkey’s intelligence and subversive activities in the Balkans and Kosovo in particular is motivated by other formulas (like the fight against terrorism, international drug trafficking, religious intolerance, Islamic solidarity, and finally the strategy of neo-Ottomanism and imperial revanchism).
From time to time, for objective reasons, ethnic tensions between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo erupt. The authorities in Pristina are pursuing a consistent course towards the albanization of the region under the well-known Azeri-Turkish slogan “one nation, two states” (Azerbaijan and Turkey, and, in this case, Albania and Kosovo). And every time the local Serbian population is confronted with the fact of accepting new provisions of Kosovo’s independence, the situation in the province escalates.
Accordingly, the current tension in Kosovo to the point of igniting a new phase of the Serbian-Albanian war has compelled the Serbian authorities and President Aleksandar Vučić to come out in support of the Kosovo Serbs. For the sake of objectivity, it should be noted that President Vučić, representing the pro-Western wing of Serbian political life, by his policy of accommodation with NATO and the EU has actually brought the rights and interests of Kosovo Serbs to the level of defenselessness. He seemed to be actively cooperating with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
After winning the election, President Erdoğan announced Turkey’s readiness to send additional troops to Kosovo to restore order and stability (note that Turkish peacekeepers are already part of the international KFOR force in Kosovo). Moreover, Erdoğan allowed the idea of leading an international collective force in Kosovo to restore order. It is obvious that the Turkish special forces brigade will not care about the interests and rights of the local Serbian population, but rather, on the contrary, will show them all the force of suppression and expulsion from Kosovo.
According to the norms of recognition of independence of the Republic of Kosovo, Western countries (NATO) exclude the possibility of forming a Kosovo (read Albanian) army and prohibit Pristina from having heavy armored vehicles and combat aircraft (including kamikaze drones), except for the Security Forces to protect order. Contrary to NATO and its allies’ prohibitions, Turkey is nonetheless sending the Bayraktar TB2 combat drones to Kosovo.
In this regard, the other day official Belgrade through President Aleksandar Vučić stated that Serbia will not buy the Turkish UAVs that Ankara supplies to Pristina, but will buy them from China and some Middle Eastern countries (possibly Iran or Israel).
Apparently, Aleksandar Vučić was, in a sense, offended by Erdoğan for his consistency on the Kosovo issue in favor of the Albanians. But what did Vučić expect from Erdoğan when he himself supplied Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan with arms against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh?
There is no place for resentment and surprise in politics. As they say, you reap what you sow. Everything comes back as a boomerang someday. Belgrade has to rely on the US to “freeze” tensions in Kosovo, because Washington is now busy with the Ukrainian crisis and all the Americans are thinking about hurting the Russians, rather than creating a new hotbed of conflict in its area of responsibility in Europe.
Meanwhile, the best answer about the future comes from the past. It was no coincidence that this author paid a little attention to history in the beginning of this article. Having lost their independence, the Serbs have always strived for the rebirth of their statehood and pinned their hopes on the Christian world. But Europe has not properly helped the Serbian people (as well as other nations) for more than a century, although it did not refuse their help in the wars against Ottoman Turkey. And only Russia’s liberation mission allowed the Serbian people to regain their independence and rebuild their national statehood. There are lessons to be learned from history.