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Erdogan a role model for 'strongmen'?

Benjamin Pargan
April 21, 2017

In the wake of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's referendum victory, developments in Ankara are being closely followed in the Balkans. That has a lot to do with the region's cultural and historical ties to Turkey.

Türkei Banner mit Porträt von Präsident Erdogan in Istanbul
Image: Getty Images/C. McGrath

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received an exceptional amount of praise from one European capital for his recent referendum victory. In Sarajevo, Bakir Izetbegovic, a member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and President of the Party of Democratic Action - Bosnia and Herzegovina's most powerful Muslim party - said that coming changes to Turkey's constitution will help stabilize the country. As many Bosniak politicians tend to do, he emphasized Turkey's geopolitical importance, saying that the referendum will make the country "an even stronger regional power."

Izetbegovic's enthusiasm for Erdogan is no surprise. Images of friendly meetings between the two are often featured in Bosnia and Herzegovina's media. No matter if the photos are from private occasions, such as the weddings of Erdogan's children, or official state meetings: Erdogan and his "Brother Bakir" always smile at one another trustingly - underlining the good faith and solidarity that exists between their people. Despite such demonstrative exhibitions of affection, many Bosniaks are critical of these official proclamations of solidarity. When Erdogan shamelessly and tactlessly attempted to instrumentalize the deaths of Bosniak victims of the Srebrenica Massacre during his public spat with the Netherlands, many Bosniaks were furious: Erdogan claimed that Dutch soldiers had slaughtered 8,000 Bosnian Muslims during the 1995 Bosnian War.   

Balkans becoming 'less democratic'

Those observing the region say the Turkish referendum will not affect relations between Ankara and Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Turkey, says one former Bosnia and Herzegovina diplomat, does not have the time nor the energy to deal with the Balkans, because it is far too busy with Syria and other problems in the Middle East.

Bosnien und Herzegowina - Bakir Izetbegovic am "State Day"
Izetbegovic believes the constitutional changes will stabilize TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/AA/S. Yordamovic

Naim Rashiti, director of the Balkans Policy Research Group in Pristina, says that Bosnia and Herzegovina is Erdogan's key partner in the Balkans - followed by Macedonia and Kosovo. In the past, deeply-divided Bosnia and Herzegovina has often been a flashpoint for conflicts between different competing major powers.

Rashiti does not view Erdogan's referendum victory as good news, neither for Turkey nor for the region as a whole: "Tactics and ambitions similar to Erdogan's have been growing in Macedonia and Serbia over the last several years, that is making the Balkans less democratic." Rashiti adds that the referendum will likely necessitate action from the Kosovan government: "Pristina will have to clarify its position as relates to its ties with the West and with Turkey. For instance, when it comes to capital punishment - where Kosovo must make a choice - or its cooperation with Turkish state organizations." Distance between Turkey and the West will grow over the next few years, says Rashiti. "And Pristina will have to reposition itself."

Bulgaria's Turkish minority largely opposes Erdogan

Most analysts in the region agree that Erdogan's ruthless approach, his undermining of democracy and ultimately his victory, will only serve to embolden "strongmen" currently leading some Balkan countries. It would seem that in Erdogan they have yet another role model - alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin - to confirm that their distinct inclination for abusing democratic and legal standards actually work.

One exception in the region, however, is Bulgaria, which has been an EU member state for 10 years. Just 17 percent of those Turks living in Bulgaria and eligible to vote in the referendum did so. And of those, some 70 percent voted against Erdogan's plan to expand presidential powers. Ahead of the referendum, Ahmed Dogan, one of the Turkish minority's strongest representatives, accused Erdogan of wanting to recreate the Ottoman sultanate. "He wants unbridled power and his referendum is a threat to democracy," criticized Dogan.