Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing its worst political crisis since the end of the civil war in 1995. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, announced this month that the country’s Serb-run entity, Republika Srpska, would quit key state institutions to achieve full autonomy within the country, in violation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. The Turkish Foreign Ministry is using its diplomatic channels to mediate between ethnic groups in Bosnia. While it is likely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will increase his anti-Western rhetoric with a view to pleasing nationalist allies at home before the presidential election scheduled for June 2023, it is unlikely he has much to offer Bosnian Muslims and may in fact worsen the situation.
The agreement established Bosnia and Herzegovina’s administrative system, and the country was divided into two entities, a Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska, and headed by a three-member presidency with one from each of the major ethnic groups.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is seen as a possible future member of the EU but is not yet an official candidate, and the country has also applied for NATO membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s foreign minister, Bisera Turkovic, told Newsweek last month that the country’s long-time bid for NATO and European Union membership is more urgent than ever to avoid “new genocides … war criminals and terrorists.”
Some local journalists maintain that there is no serious tension between Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three largest ethnic groups of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats; however, Dodik, who has been losing public support leading up to the election scheduled for Oct. 2, 2022, has been using populist rhetoric to divert attention from the serious economic situation in Republika Srpska.
Erdoğan claims that the late Aliya Izzetbegovic, who is considered the national hero of Bosnian Muslims, entrusted Bosnians to him. This claim is, however, incredibly dubious since no serious Bosnian authority or individual has confirmed Izzetbegovic’s last statement to or conversation with Erdoğan. Izzetbegovic was the founder and first president of the conservative Party of Democratic Action and served as the first president of the Presidency of the newly independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1996, later becoming a member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, serving until 2000. He succumbed to heart disease in 2003.
Erdoğan poured Turkish taxpayers’ money into one of Europe’s youngest nations, as Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) opened the headquarters of state-sponsored NGOs and official institutions in the Balkan country, such as the Yunus Emre Foundation, the Maarif (Education) Foundation, the Turkish Red Crescent, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), Turkish national public broadcaster TRT, the International University of Sarajevo and many other institutions.
Besides Turkey’s expensive lobbying activities, Erdoğan and AKP lawmakers have frequently visited Bosnia and Herzegovina, and thus Turkey’s religious, cultural and political influence has steadily increased, especially in the Bosniak part of the country, over the last two decades of AKP rule.
However, ironically, the Erdoğan government has made numerous business investments in neighboring Serbia but not in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Serbia has a central and strategic position in the Balkans. We have deep-rooted, historical and cultural ties with Serbia, and we see Serbia as a neighboring country, even though we do not share common borders. Today, our relationship is at its best level. My dear friend [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vučić has a great role and support in this,” Erdoğan said during an official visit in October 2019, the Anadolu news agency reported.
While Erdoğan’s close relationship with Serbian leader Vučić and Bosnian Serb leader Dodik is seemingly beneficial in improving ties with Serbs to avoid further civil war, Erdoğan’s increasing religious populism and ethnic nationalism have begun to disturb the Bosnian authorities.
Dr Erdoan Shipoli, a US-based expert on Turkey and the Balkans, warned in 2017 that “Turkey has always seen the Balkans as the road it can use to reach Europe. Nevertheless, in recent years of the Erdoğan era, it has also started seeing the Balkans as something it can use for leverage. So Erdoğan’s government wants to increase its influence in those societies by investing and helping some civil society organizations. … It does this so that tomorrow it will be able to tell Europe, ‘We have all this influence in the Balkans, your own back door, and we can use it to blackmail you’.”
Erdoğan’s May 2018 election rally in Bosnia was an eye-opener for many Bosnians, to whom it became obvious that Erdoğan intended to utilize Bosnia for domestic and political gain.
Following Austrian, German and Dutch authorities’ denial of Erdoğan’s request to hold election rallies in their territories due to security concerns, the AKP decided to improvise and organized a major speech in Sarajevo with an intent to gather all Turkish expats in Europe. Many Bosnian officials told Reuters that they were not aware of Erdoğan’s election rally in their country. And Dnevni Avaz, one of the most widely read newspapers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, criticized Erdoğan’s visit in an article titled “Erdoğan today, Putin tomorrow.”
Following a scuffle between Erdoğan’s security team and border police at the Sarajevo airport, Bosnian border police chief Zoran Galic told the Dnevni Avaz news website at the time that “They [Erdoğan’s security team] did not respect our laws and deserved to be arrested.”
The region was under the control of the Ottomans from 1463 until the late 1800s, and consequently Bosnians historically value their relationship with Muslim Turkey, but also at the moment look toward their future in the European Union.
A large number of Bosnians work in Germany as the youth unemployment rate in Bosnia is around 50 percent. Moreover, all the high representatives for Bosnia and Herzegovina who oversee the civilian implementation of the Dayton Agreement have been from European Union countries. And Erdoğan’s current anti-Western rhetoric is causing further harm to the Bosnian cause. Finland and Sweden recently applied for NATO membership in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Erdoğan, the leader of NATO member Turkey, has opposed the NATO application of these Nordic states and accused them of harboring terrorists. As Erdoğan blocks Finland and Sweden’s application, other European NATO members could delay Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU and NATO membership.
Turkey has closely been following the recent political crises in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Erdoğan has expressed his willingness to hold a Turkey-Bosnia and Herzegovina-Serbia trilateral summit at the appropriate time. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu also stated during a press conference with his Bosnian counterpart, Jasmina Turkovic, during a visit to Sarajevo on Saturday that “Bosnia and Herzegovina plays a key role in the region’s stability, and Türkiye will not allow a new conflict.”
Erdoğan has long been taking advantage of the suffering of poor Palestinians by portraying himself as a leader of the Muslim world while simultaneously strengthening business and political ties with Israel. Similarly, Erdoğan is simply using Turkish NGOs as soft power in Bosnia while doing business with the Serbs. Erdoğan’s populist politics will in no way benefit nor assist Bosnian Muslims, but instead, is likely to further isolate them from the heart of Europe.