by David L Phillips
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed an audience in Prizren during an official visit to Kosovo in October 2013: “We all belong to a common history, common culture, common civilization. We are the people who are brethren of that structure. Do not forget, Turkey is Kosovo, Kosovo is Turkey!”
Turkey’s foreign policy in the Balkans promotes a neo-Ottoman agenda, aimed at expanding its influence in former territories of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey exports Islamism under the guise of cultural cooperation. It also seeks economic advantage, using business as leverage to consolidate its national interests.
The Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) is a vehicle through which Turkey advances its ideological agenda. TIKA is the vanguard of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which supports Muslim Brotherhood chapters around the world. TIKA runs a parallel and complementary foreign policy to official state institutions, coordinating with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and the Presidency of Religious Affairs to promote the AKP’s Islamist agenda.
TIKA operates like a social welfare agency. In Kosovo, it supports more than 400 projects in the fields of agriculture, health and education. Affordable health care is offered in Kosovo at Turkish-run hospitals and clinics, sponsored by TIKA.
Despite its extensive activities, Zeri reports that the Central Bank of Kosovo has logged only 2.7 million Euros transferred by TIKA to its Kosovo account between 2009 and 2014. TIKA transfers most funds in cash with no official record. It does not want to draw attention to its activities.
Most TIKA funds are used to restore Ottoman monuments and build mosques. For example, TIKA supported restoration of the Sultan Murat Tomb in Kosovo. It rebuilt Ottoman religious sites like the Fatih Mosque and the Sinan Pasha Mosque, which cost 1.2 million Euros. Since 2011, TIKA has restored approximately 30 religious structures from the Ottoman period and 20 new mosques across Kosovo. Erdogan personally pledged funds to build the country’s biggest mosque in Pristina.
In addition, TIKA supports regional Islamic unions and institutions. It subsidizes community based social mobilization projects, which promote Islam. TIKA’s network of Muslim community leaders and imams, which includes imams from Turkey, actively promotes Islam. Its benevolence includes food for the Iftar meal during Ramadan, delivered to impressionable Kosovars in poor rural areas.
TIKA also sponsors schools in Pristina, Prizren, Gjakova, and Peja. Some schools provide Qur’anic instruction, as well as Turkish language instruction. As many as 20,000 Turks reside in Kosovo, where Turkish is an official language. The Turkish Embassy in Pristina awards 100 scholarships for Kosovars to study in Turkey each year.
But not all schools supported by TIKA are part of the formal education sector. Some function like madrassas, offering Islamic education, thereby contributing to the radicalization of Kosovar youth. The Government of Kosovo acknowledges that more than 300 Kosovars have joined the Islamic State in Syria. The figure dates back a couple of years. Today’s number may be much higher.
Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Centers are also vehicles for Turkish influence. According to its charter, Yunus Emre Centers “provide services abroad to people who want to have education in the fields of Turkish language, culture and art, to improve the friendship between Turkey and other countries.”
Support for educational institutions is a propaganda tool to foster a positive impression of Turkey among Kosovars. Turkey’s Minister of Education visited Kosovo and publicly asked Kosovo institutions to change history texts in order to portray Ottomans as liberators, rather than as occupants and aggressors.
Erdogan asked the Government of Kosovo to close schools established by Fetullah Gulen, with whom he had a falling out. Kosovo officials acquiesced, though Gulen schools offered quality education to Kosovars.
Turkish businessmen also benefit from Turkey’s aggressive religious and cultural promotion. A well-respected Turkish scholar asks of the AKP, “Are they Islamists or just thieves with a religious rhetoric?”
Turkey is Kosovo’s largest trading partner, after Serbia. The trade volume between Turkey and Kosovo was 206.5 million Euros in 2012. (Export to Kosovo was 199.5 million Euros; import from Kosovo only 7 million Euro). Trade volume slightly decreased in 2013-14 due to an economic slowdown in the region.
Tenders for some of the biggest public projects in Kosovo have been won by Turkish companies. The Limak Holding Company won the concession to manage the Pristina International Airport. The Çalık-Limak Consortium also acquired the Kosovo Energy Distribution Services. Limak pledged to invest 300 million Euros in the transmission system, but its investment still has not materialized.
The Merdare-Morina highway connecting Kosovo to Albania was built by the Turkish construction company, Enka, in consortium with Bechtel. Çalik-Limak has just started construction of the Pristina-Hani Elezit highway between Kosovo and Macedonia.
The award of tenders may be subject to political influence. Çalik Holding and Limak are politically well-connected. Erdogan’s son-in-law is a major shareholder in Limak.
The Turkish banking system dominates the financial sector in Kosovo. A majority of Kosovo’s major banks are Turkish, including the Turkish Economic Bank (TEB).
More than 900 Turkish companies operate in Kosovo. About 7,000 Kosovars are employed by Turkish companies in, for example, the food processing and textile sectors. It is hard to be accepted or keep a job in a business where the owner is Turkish if you don’t speak Turkish.
Kadri Veseli, a prominent Kosovo politician, was a former critic of Turkish concerns acquiring Kosovo state enterprises. Veseli bemoaned Turkey’s penetration as bad for both Kosovo’s economy and its EU aspirations.
Since become Speaker of Kosovo’s Parliament, however, Vaseli has not said a word about Turkey’s economic dominance. He and other prominent Kosovo politicians, including Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci, have close ties to Erdogan, as well as Turkish business and political leaders.
Turkey has cemented its influence through security cooperation. Around 2,000 Turkish soldiers were deployed as part of the KFOR peacekeeping mission in 1999. There are still 350 Turkish soldiers in Pristina and Prizren. Turkey has indicated its willingness to assume control of Bondsteel, the US base in Kosovo, as US forces withdraw.
Turkey has also shown itself a reliable political partner. Ankara was reluctant to endorse Kosovo’s independence, lest a parallel be drawn with its Kurdish minority. However, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo when it declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s notion of “strategic depth” views Turkey as a regional power and an alternative to the EU for countries like Kosovo. Muslim solidarity is the centerpiece of Davutoğlu’s strategy to expand Turkey’s influence.
Davutoğlu explicitly linked Turkey’s foreign policy to its Ottoman legacy during a trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2009. “The Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were a success story. Now we have to reinvent this.” He announced, “Turkey is back.”
Faster integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions is the best antidote to Turkey’s influence in Kosovo and the Western Balkans. US interests would also be served through intensified engagement in the region.
Closer cooperation between the US and Kosovo would be a bulwark against Turkey’s export of Islamism. It would also prevent the further radicalization of Kosovo society, staunching the flow of Kosovars to join ISIS.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Experts to the US Department of State during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Phillips is author of “Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention” (Kennedy School at Harvard University and NBC Publishing).