European Western Balkans

Turkey playing on the card of Islam in Albania?

Albanian flag; Photo: Pixabay

In the years following the demise of communism in Albania, Turkey emerged as an important factor to shape Albania’s transition from a totalitarian regime to a pluralistic democratic one. The aim of Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Balkans, apart from securing the stability and security of the region, was to establish and strengthen economic and cultural ties.

Building on the “common culture with the Balkans” rhetoric, Turkey, under the rule of Tayyip Erdogan markedly increased its presence in the Balkans, especially in the regions with the predominantly Muslim population, nurturing thus the Muslim sentiments of the people who had been stripped of their religious identity during communism. The flourishing of religious identities and one’s strong identification with certain religion might contradict with a non-religious national identity of the Albanians.

An example of this contradiction was the recent celebration of Kurban Bajram at the central Skanderbeg square in Tirana, during which the monument of the Albanian national hero was encircled by giant screens placed by the Albanian Islamic Community, thus covering the monument of a man that, according to some of the Muslim Albanians, symbolizes not only the struggle against the Ottomans but the ruthless fight against Islam as such. Interestingly, only a day before the event, Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, had announced that 2018 would be celebrated as the “Year of Skanderbeg”, marking the 550th anniversary of the death of the Albanian national hero.

Apart from Turkey’s continuous economic involvement in Albania and its growing strategic interest in the tiny country on the shores of the Adriatic– one of its latest projects consists of building an airport in the town of Vlora, the second largest in the country – Turkey’s cultural penetration deserves particular scrutiny.

At the beginning of the new millennia, Turkey’s foreign policy faced a considerable shift under the auspices of the ruling AK Party. The then chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan, Ahmet Davutoglu designed a new approach in the contemplation of Turkey’s foreign policy and outlined his ideas in the so-called ‘Strategic Depth’ Doctrine. Owing to its history and geographic position, Turkey, according to Davutoglu, possessed ‘strategic depth’, which renders Turkey a particular central power, aspiring to play a leading role in several regions, including the Balkans. Capitalizing on this asset, Turkey was shifting to a pro-active policy, using its soft power potential.

Although the classification of the AKP agenda as neo-Ottoman widely spread, the shift in foreign policy was considerably influenced by pure pragmatism. The AKP has sought the way to counterbalance Turkey’s dependencies on the West by fostering new alliances, balancing its relationship so as to maintain optimal independence and a considerable dose of political leverage.

Turkish cooperation and coordination agency (TIKA) was founded in 1992 with the aim to assist the newly independent countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus in the fields of industry, agriculture, infrastructure, finance, healthcare and education. TIKA opened its offices in almost all the countries in the Balkans, aimed at offering help and assistance during the turbulent period of the transition to democracies, establishing and nurturing the connections between the peoples, and preserving the cultural heritage dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Following the coming of the AKP to power, the number and the scope of the projects in the Balkans has increased, reflecting thus the re-shaped foreign policy of Turkey towards the region.

For instance, according to TIKA annual reports, between 2011 and 2014 there were 95 projects in Albania being carried out owing to the assistance provided by TIKA, which makes up more than one-third of all the projects completed ever since the agency was established in Albania in 1996.

Religion, nevertheless, played a key asset that Turkey capitalized on in shaping the renewed foreign policy approach towards the region. As a country that had suppressed the practice of religion for almost half a century, Albania was, from the moment it had “opened up” to the world, perceived as a fertile ground for a myriad of organizations from the Arab peninsula and Northern Africa with an Islamic overtone. The attempt to re-shape the country along religious lines intensified following Albania’s admission into the Organization of Islamic cooperation in 1992. Turkish presidency of religious affairs (Diyanet) began to engage with numerous Muslim communities in the Balkans during the 1990s, providing the religious education and constructing and/or renovating the mosques, among other things, thus contesting the growing Arab influence and assuming the role of the “leader” of Muslim communities both in Albania and the region.

Capitalizing on Islam and the cultural affinity, Turkey remains one of the most influential factors in Albania, along with the US and the EU. A number of Albanian intellectuals have been concerned with the increasing Turkish influence in the region.

For instance, Pirro Misha notes that the overarching Turkish influence might be an element of Ankara’s ever-increasing political and economic ambitions in the Balkans, which might damage the European aspirations of the region. Although it is not likely that the growing influence of Turkey and the increase of religious affiliations would divide the nation on religious grounds, some indicators should be taken into account. An example of a possible bone to contention was the aforementioned religious festivity in the Albanian capital.

Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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