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Bosnia, Erdoganís 'Jerusalem at the heart of Europe'

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Tuesday, 18 September 2018


As Turkey's President Erdogan runs out of money, he is now, more than any time before, using religion to exploit the Balkans, especially the states that are more susceptible to Islamic influence. Bosnia is at the fore of Erdogan's ambitious Islamic agenda, where he is sparing no political capital or financial resources, even under his current economic hardship, to assert his influence and distance the country away from the EU's reach. Obviously, the Bosnians cannot survive simply on being devout Muslims, with the youth unemployment rate at almost 60 percent. Turkey is unlikely to economically recover anytime soon, and Erdogan's promises to provide financial aid and investments will ring hollow in the face of his deepening financial crisis.

The war of words, hyperinflation, US sanctions, and reckless investments on borrowed money have steadily been chipping away at the value of the Turkish Lira. Five years ago, $1 was worth 2 lira; today, six liras are exchanged for a dollar, but that has not discouraged Bosnian leaders from seeking closer association with Erdogan.

Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim leader and the chairman of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, said last May (in front of thousands of Turkish expatriates and Bosnian supporters of Erdogan who travelled from all over Europe to Sarajevo) that "God has sent [our] nations one person to return them to their religion… He is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We remain standing with God's help." The crowd cheered when a leader of diaspora Turks equated and idealized Sarajevo as "the Jerusalem at the heart of Europe".

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Bosnia was more than willing to open the door for the Turkish president to organize an election rally in Sarajevo, especially following the EU's refusal to allow him to campaign in its member states. For Erdogan, the Balkans is the region that can put him in a position to realize his political goal of reviving some semblance of the Ottoman Empire while undermining the EU's influence in these countries.

Bosnia consists of two entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose population is made up of Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats; and Republika Srpska, where Orthodox Serbs are a majority. About half of Bosnia's 3.8 million citizens are Muslims, many of whom consider Erdogan their trusted leader, if not their savior.

For more than a decade, Erdogan has invested heavily in spreading his influence among Balkan states, and Bosnia was and still is one of his main targets. He pledged a multi-billion dollar investment in a key motorway connecting Serbia and Bosnia. Turkey and Bosnia signed a letter of intent for the construction of a highway connecting the two Balkan capitals, a project estimated to cost $3.5 billion, which has not yet started because of lack of financial resources.

Meanwhile, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA)-a vehicle through which Turkey spreads its Islamic agenda in the Balkans-has completed more than 800 small projects in Bosnia, mostly related to religious institutions.

European leaders have already been voicing concerns over Turkey's influence in the Balkans. Only a few months ago, French President Emmanuel Macron declared "I don't want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia".

During his May speech in Sarajevo, Erdogan urged supporters to actively participate in European politics to counter anti-Turkish sentiment. "You need to be in those parliaments instead of the ones who betray our country," he said, referring to European lawmakers with Turkish roots.

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In a conversation with us, Orhan Hadzagic, a political analyst from Bosnia, said that Erdogan is adulated by Bosnians as more than just a foreign leader. He rhetorically asks, "From Erdogan's last visit to Bosnia, what was the benefit for Bosnian citizens from that rally, an event featuring the heads of two parties who support one other?"

Hadzagic is convinced that his country is risking its accession to the EU by opening its doors to Erdogan, from where he is challenging Brussels directly. "Many NGOs", he said, "are close to Turkey; they receive financial support to change the negative image and the perception about the rising authoritarian rule in Turkey, among Bosnians."

Although a large majority of Bosnians do not see any alternative to the European Union, they are passionate in their support of Erdogan. In a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute and released in March of this year, 76 percent of Bosnians said they had positive views about Turkey's role in their country.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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