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HomeGeopolitical CompassWest & Centeral AsiaTurkish Foreign Policy in the Balkans Amidst Soft Power and De-Europeanisation

Turkish Foreign Policy in the Balkans Amidst Soft Power and De-Europeanisation

Authors: Başak Alpan & Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

Affiliation: Middle East Technical University, London Metropolitan University

Organization/Publisher: Southeast European and Black Sea Studies

Date/Place:  February 7, 2022/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 19



Keywords: Soft Power, Foreign Policy, the Balkans




Turkey’s influence in the Balkans has grown in recent years, with a focus on using religious, political, and economic strategies to achieve its goals. The country’s approach to the Balkans has been characterized by soft power, starting with its “zero problems with neighbors” policy in the early 2000s. Since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has taken on a leadership role in the region. However, in light of domestic changes and de-Europeanization in both the Balkans and Turkey, Turkey’s foreign policy has become more assertive, shifting away from its earlier reliance on soft power. This approach is manifested in three dimensions: normative soft power, which relies on religion and nationalism; material soft power, such as investments in both state and non-state entities in the Balkans; and personal soft power, which is reflected in the relationships between regional leaders and their respective networks.


In the early 2000s, Turkish foreign policy was closely aligned with the European Union’s framework of democratic reforms. The accession process encouraged Turkey to adopt a peaceful, soft power approach to its foreign policy, with the goal of incorporating the EU’s soft power techniques, which rely on cultural attraction, ideology, and international institutions, into its regional approach. However, starting in the 2010s, Turkish foreign policy began to diverge from this EU-friendly model. Key factors in this shift included the start of the Syrian civil war and the emergence of major security concerns such as the rise of Kurdish militias and ISIS, as well as the refugee crisis and the destabilization of the region. The nuclear deal between the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany) and Iran also raised concerns that Iran could have greater influence in the region, before the deal was later scrapped by the US. Turkish foreign policy shifted further with military interventions in northern Syria in 2016 and 2018, as the country adopted a more assertive, revisionist approach to its past patterns.


Turkey’s foreign policy has undergone a shift towards de-Europeanization, meaning that its institutions and policies are no longer fully aligned with EU standards or demands. Relations between Turkey and the EU have deteriorated since the 2005 period, particularly in regards to cooperation on issues such as migration and energy. However, there is still some level of “selective Europeanization,” where EU-style policy reform is accepted as long as it serves certain objectives. This shift in Turkey’s approach has been attributed to the rise of authoritarian rule, which is said to have resulted in a foreign policy based on an aggressive, religious, and nationalist foundation. It is understandable that Turkey’s relations with the West have weakened, given the reasons for its shift towards a more independent policy. The post-coup period and the lack of European and Western support for the Turkish government led to an independent and assertive foreign policy. However, branding this change as a descent into authoritarianism does not adequately capture the complexity of the new policies. It is important to consider the Western approach to the region and its destabilizing effect on Turkish national interests. It is not feasible for Turkey to follow a policy paradigm that is friendly to the West, regardless of whether it is harmful, simply because it aligns with EU/US style. It is not surprising that a trade-oriented approach has been balanced with a security-oriented one in light of regional events, and not just because the ruling party has domestic power ambitions.


In addition, Turkey and the EU have had conflicts over drilling in the East Mediterranean, which are connected to issues involving Cyprus and the Aegean Islands with Greece. The EU has expressed support for Cyprus and Greece in regards to their territorial claims and threatened punitive measures against Turkey’s drilling activities. It is not realistic to expect Turkey to sit back and allow two of its neighbors to isolate it from the sea in an attempt to gain geopolitical leverage against it. It is true that domestic events can influence foreign policy. Ignoring regional events or the unhelpful stance of the EU towards Turkey can lead to misunderstandings in analysis. The shift in Turkish foreign policy cannot be attributed solely to authoritarianism fueled by chauvinistic rhetoric.


Turkey’s approach to the Balkans has seen a significant increase in depth since the time of Turgut Özal, with a reliance on diplomacy and soft power methods dating back even further. The rise of Erdoğan to power marked an intensification of relations, particularly in the early 2000s as the region underwent a process of Europeanization. Institutions such as the Turkish Diyanet, TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency), and Yunus Emre Institute have played a role in building influence. Despite the changes in Turkish foreign policy in the post-2010s period, this dynamic has not changed much, if at all. This is particularly evident in how Balkan actors perceive Turkey’s presence, with Muslims generally viewing it positively and others with suspicion. However, the changes in the nature of Turkish policies in the 2010s have had some impact, reflected in the differing opinions on Turkish influence. One camp sees the increasing influence as a reflection of the historical ties between Turkey and the Balkans, while the other voices concerns about what they perceive as a neo-Ottoman hegemonic project. The departure from EU ideals also plays a role in the new dynamic in the region with regard to Turkish presence, but it cannot be said that the soft power approach has disappeared or is no longer central in the Balkans. 


It is noteworthy that the most active field is the religious domain, with the Turkish Diyanet establishing representative offices throughout the Balkans, particularly in Albania, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia. Turkey’s approach to the region garners favor in the domestic popular scene by strengthening relations with Muslims on the international stage. Additionally, the increasing de-Europeanization in the region has caused regional actors to turn to their religious identities as a substitute for the less appealing EU ideals. Claims of rising authoritarianism try to explain this shift as a criticism of the new status quo. However, it is more likely that the current status quo and its further evolution away from EU ideals is a natural development. Perhaps EU liberal principles are no longer able to address the needs of the region and its people.


In addition to its religious activities, Turkey’s foreign policy also includes a significant focus on the economic domain. In 2016, Turkey invested $200 billion in 11 regional countries, with indirect investments made through institutions like TIKA and the Yunus Emre Institute. The economic domain is supported through both state apparatus and commercial activities by businessmen close to the state. It is clear that Turkey is increasing its presence through both direct and indirect economic relations, supported by aid activities throughout the Balkans. Despite economic challenges, Turkish influence remains significant in the region. Additionally, the increased importance of strong leader figures in the Balkans has allowed for deeper relations between Balkan states beyond just popular rhetoric, providing additional avenues for conducting foreign policy in the region through personal relations between government leaders.


In conclusion, Turkey’s proximity to the Balkans has allowed it to effectively use soft power to increase its role in the region. Up until the early 2010s, Turkish foreign policy was influenced by the EU, after which significant changes led to a more assertive approach in Turkey’s neighboring regions. Turkey has used the domains of economy and religion to increase its influence, relying on both the normative and material aspects of soft power. Domestic changes may influence how Turkish foreign policy shifts, in addition to the de-Europeanization of foreign policy, which may bring challenges in relations with non-Muslim states in the Balkans.

By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Assistant



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