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If It Ain’t Broken, Don’t Fix It: Turkish Foreign Policy in the Balkans After the Elections

By Vuk Vuksanović and Srđan Hercigonja

The first round of Turkish presidential elections is over. A runoff for the Turkish presidency will be held on May 28 2023, promising a tough fight between the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his opposition contender Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. How will Turkish foreign policy unfold if the opposition candidate wins? Regardless of the outcome of the elections, there will be a surprising continuity in the country’s foreign policy, particularly towards the Balkans.

Under Erdoğan’s leadership, the relations with the West were not always comfortable, leading Türkiye to diversify its partnerships by engaging Russia, the Middle East and Africa. Kılıçdaroğlu recently promised that in case of his win country’s foreign policy will turn around “180 degrees.” However, the strong combination of international and domestic structures might ensure a strong continuity in Turkish foreign policy, irrespective of whether Erdoğan or the opposition win.

Geopolitically, Türkiye will continue being squeezed between Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. In that environment, to maintain its security, Türkiye will have to rely on the security guarantees provided by its membership in NATO primarily because Russia is always present in almost every theatre that is of security concern for Ankara, whether it is in the Black Sea, the Caucasus or thanks to the Russian presence in Syria in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. However, precisely because Russia is present almost everywhere around Türkiye, the country’s foreign policy elites need to have a channel of communication open with the Russians to prevent unnecessary conflict and secure Türkiye’s space for geopolitical manoeuvring.

One can say that the multi-vector policy has a strong historical foundation dating back to the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who believed that Türkiye always needs to have an agency, implying being, if not a great power, at least a country capable of shaping its own destiny, not being dependent on the will of external powers.

The economic factors will also strengthen these geopolitical forces. As a pair of Türkiye-based academics, Onur İşçi and Samuel J. Hirst wrote recently in “War on the Rocks”: “The economic realities mean that whoever wins on May 14 will be forced to maintain relations with both Western purchasers of Turkish exports and Russian and Chinese providers of key imports. For better or worse, these complementary ties will prevent a radical geopolitical realignment under either President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or his successor.” These authors stress that Türkiye needs the West for a viable economy, particularly since Europe, with which Türkiye has a customs union, is the largest export market for Turkish products. Still, on that same front, Türkiye also needs energy imports from Russia and China-made goods.

Where do the Balkans fit into this dynamic? The consensus amongst Turkish foreign policy experts is that the Balkan policy would experience the least changes of all. On that point, things need to be put in perspective. Türkiye will still need Europe as its biggest customer and economic partner regardless of who is in power in Ankara. To connect itself with Europe, whether by air, land or sea, Türkiye will go through the Balkans. Also, from the Turkish standpoint, if the country wants to become a player in wider Eurasia, it needs to have a defence perimeter and influence in its European rear.

It also needs to be underscored that what gives the Balkans value in Türkiye is that of all the regional theatres where Türkiye is involved, the Balkans is one region that has been a success story for Ankara. Just compare Türkiye’s relations with the Balkan countries compared to the security crises and rivalries Türkiye lives within East Mediterranean, Middle East, Caucasus and Black Sea.

The opposition will also be aware of this reality and want to preserve it. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. The Balkans will remain another theatre where Türkiye, a country that needs the West, can demonstrate its ability to cooperate with the West without sacrificing its autonomy.

As a member of NATO and a member of a customs union with the EU, Türkiye’s security and prosperity would be well served by the Balkans being integrated with the West. In that context, Ankara, regardless of the elites in power, can work with the West as long as Türkiye feels it is not a blind follower of Western governments.

Domestic politics will also shape Ankara’s Balkan policy. It is estimated that up to 18 million Turkish citizens have origins from the Balkans. Over time the Balkan factor will become an even more influential force in Turkish politics affecting the country’s foreign policy by extent. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama voicing support for Erdoğan might be a sign of things to come. There are essentially two strands of Ankara’s foreign policy. The emotional one, that underlines special ties with ethnic groups and countries like the Bosniaks and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the realist, pragmatic one, that puts Serbia as Türkiye’s most important interlocutor on Balkan affairs. Whoever takes the helm of Turkish Balkan policy must balance these two strands together in the future.

We should all watch the Turkish elections carefully. If Kılıçdaroğlu wins, we may see at first glance some changes in countries foreign policy, like tilting more Westsward and cooling ties with Russia. However, long term, it is likelier that these would only be temporary cosmetics and that Turkish foreign policy, including in the Balkans, is least dependent on which political party rules in Ankara.

Dr Vuk Vuksanovic is a senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) and an associate at LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank within the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Srdjan Hercigonja is a senior researcher at the BCSP. This article is in part based on their forthcoming report for the BCSP.

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