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26 Apr 11

Davutoglu: ‘I’m Not a Neo-Ottoman’

The Turkish foreign minister on why Turkey is a Balkan country, neo-Ottomanism, achieving lasting peace in the region and relations with Serbia and Macedonia.

Compiled by Altin Raxhimi

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister since 2009 has perhaps made a greater impact in the Balkans than his predecessors in recent times. His role in mediating between Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia has been widely acknowledged. On top of that, once frosty relations between Belgrade and Ankara have now begun to thaw on Davutoglu’s watch.

However, some in the Balkans remain concerned that Turkey, one time Ottoman occupiers of Serbia and large swathes of the Balkans, is pursuing a ‘neo-Ottomanist’ foreign policy – with Davutoglu at the helm. Critics within Turkey, believe this neo-Ottomanism is a result of the ruling AK Party’s increased confidence and growing assertiveness. Party members seem less shy of recalling the Ottoman past as a golden era.

This glossy, some say rose-tinted, view of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, is highly contentious in many Balkan states, particularly those who hold the Ottomans responsible for arresting economic development and those who forged their national identities in opposition to ‘the Turk’ on gaining independence from the Ottomans.
 
Davutoglu replied by email to some questions about his approach to the Balkans.

Q: What place does the Balkans occupy with regard to Turkish foreign policy?

A:  Due to its geographical, historical and cultural heritage Turkey is a Balkan country itself.
Therefore, the Balkans is neither a bridge with the EU nor a Turkish ‘backyard’. We have very strong historical, social, cultural and human ties with all the countries in the region.
 
There are millions of Turkish citizens that have their origins in the Balkans. Turkey aims at lasting peace and stability in the Balkans. We share and actively support the Euro-Atlantic vision of the Balkan countries. We believe all the Balkan countries should be sheltered under the umbrella of EU and NATO, in a not too distant future.

Our Balkan policy is shaped by the defining principles of regional ownership and all inclusiveness. It is based on four main pillars which can best be summarised as security for all, high-level political dialogue, further economic integration and the preservation of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious social structures in the region.

Our perspective on the Balkans envisages a zone of prosperity and welfare, instead of a region beset by conflicts and tension. We want the Balkans not to be considered as at the periphery of Europe, but as an integral part of it.

Transport corridors and energy pipelines must go through the Balkans and trade, financial transactions and cultural interaction should grow. Historical centres like Sarajevo, Belgrade, Skopje, Plovdiv, Mostar and Dubrovnik must prosper along with Thessaloniki and İstanbul.

The people of the Balkans should make best use of the energy created by the common cultural and historical heritage they share, and convey it as a valuable asset for a common future to their next generations.

Q: Following your 2009 Sarajevo speech, you have been accused by some of promoting an anti-European Union agenda and a return to ‘neo-Ottoman’ nationalism. How do you respond to this?

My speech during a visit to Sarajevo in 2009 on contemporary Turkish foreign policy has been misinterpreted as advocating a policy of neo-Ottomanism. I am not a neo-Ottoman. Actually there is no such policy. We have a common history and cultural depth with the Balkan countries, which nobody can deny. We cannot act as if the Ottomans never existed in this region. My perception of history in the Balkans is that we have to focus on the positive aspects of our common past. We cannot create a better future by building on a negative view of history.

We need to build a better future for the next generations that is based on common history, shared values and a joint vision. To this end, we wholeheartedly support the Euro-Atlantic orientation of all Balkan countries. We believe in the importance of securing the entire region under the European and Euro-Atlantic structures.
 
Q: Many commentators in the Balkans view you as an apologist for the role the Ottoman Empire played in the Balkans. They believe Ottoman rule is the root of the region’s poor economic development and internecine conflicts. Don’t they have a point?

I guess I already answered the question. However, as a matter of fact, the Balkans had its golden age of peace during the Ottoman reign. This is a historical fact. Those who blame the Ottoman period for the region’s economic backwardness and internecine fights are under the influence of historical prejudices and stereotypes.

It will be enough to travel only a few hundred kilometres to identify the patrimony created during the Ottoman rule. Therefore, we do not want to be part of this blame game. As I told you before we have to focus on the good. To start with, we have to take a clear and realistic picture of the history. Those who do not know history cannot make history.

Despite the positive developments taking place in the region recently and the rapprochement efforts of local leaders, which we welcome wholeheartedly, the Balkans remains to be the fragile part of Europe and the test case for lasting peace and stability in  the continent. Important challenges are yet to be overcome.

We must admit that wounds are fresh and need constant attention to be completely healed. We must deal with the legacy of the conflict - from organised crime to refugees and displaced persons; from war crimes to shattered economies and infrastructure, carefully and with a visionary approach while leaving behind the misgivings without delay.

Q: Turks of Macedonian origin seem to want to apply for Macedonian citizenship. According to a 1950s agreement with the former Yugoslavia, those who left do not have the right to return and recover their Macedonia citizenship. Should that agreement be revised?

The citizenship laws of Macedonia - as far as we are informed - do not give many possibilities to acquire citizenship. Having said this, we are not aware that a large number of Turkish citizens, whose families originate from Macedonia, are willing to settle in Macedonia and acquire citizenship. These are just speculations that should not be given credit.

Q: Does Turkey’s involvement with Serbia hinge on Belgrade’s position as central to security in the Balkans?  What it Turkish policy towards Serbia?  

Turkey and Serbia consider each other as neighbours and key partners for peace and stability in the Balkans.

We have a common will and desire to forge a strategic partnership. This has been confirmed and encouraged at the highest possible level through numerous high level visits and frequent contacts at all levels. In line with our strategic partnership perspective, we have launched a close and frank cooperation on bilateral and regional matters.

We converge on many aspects and we have a common vision for the future of the region. We have great potential for cooperation in various fields.

Q:  You have taken a lead role in negotiating between Serbia and Bosnia and even in internal Serb disputes involving the Islamic and non-Islamic communities in Serbia. How did you build trust and overcome the negative view some majority Christian Balkan states have of Turkey?

Turkey’s primary interests in the Balkans are to help normalize bilateral relations among the Balkan states to deepen regional integration.

Turkey has a clear, honest and open approach in its efforts towards the region. We do not have a hidden agenda. Hence our relations are based on mutual trust with the countries of the region. All the Balkan countries show great efforts to eliminate stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes from their history books. We are trying to generate a new perception of the Balkans based on mutual understanding, tolerance, cooperation, integration and local ownership. We are happy to witness our efforts yielding positive results.

Turkey is reaching out to all countries in the region on every front through bilateral high level visits, business contacts, NGO activities, direct investments, energy connections, and by fostering cultural and humanitarian efforts to strengthen bridges between peoples and in conducting development aid.

On a regional level, Turkey is actively pursuing multi-layered diplomacy. We have initiated two trilateral consultation mechanisms with Bosnia and Herzegovina, BiH, and Serbia on the one hand, and with BiH and Croatia on the other.

In this context, I met with my colleagues frequently and took up issues that hinder the normalization of relations among these countries and particularly with BiH.

Lack of trust towards one another among ethnic communities is still a major impediment to undertaking reforms and to building a functioning state in BiH without prejudice to the rights and obligations stemming from the Dayton Peace Agreement.

Turkey’s interest coincides with that of Serbia and Croatia, for forging a climate of reconciliation and cooperation in BiH.

If we see the people of the Balkans in peace and sharing mutual comfort then we, at home in Turkey, are also in peace, as there are many Turkish citizens of Balkan origins.

Q: What does Macedonia mean to Turkey? Why does Macedonia have so much support from Turkey?  

Macedonia should be a model country for cohabitation in the Balkans. Its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual structure can be a good reference for the whole region. There is also a sizeable Turkish minority in Macedonia and a large group of Turkish citizens have their origins in Macedonia.
 
Dialogue and mutual understanding should be encouraged to preserve and strengthen Macedonian society. Respect for the cultural/religious sensitivities of all communities should be encouraged to ensure the harmonious co-existence of the people of Macedonia.  

We are strongly committed to supporting Macedonia’s full integration with the Euro-Atlantic institutions, which is vital not only for the strengthening of peace and stability domestically, but also that of in the Western Balkans.

Turkey was among the very first countries to recognize the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name and, national identity. We continue to support the right of Macedonia as a sovereign nation to determine its constitutional name.

Macedonian people need to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We regret that Macedonia’s path to the membership to NATO and EU remains impeded due to the name dispute. Euro-Atlantic integration is essential for lasting stability in this country. It must not be taken hostage by the name issue.

Macedonia collaborates actively with its neighbours and other countries in the region. An important example is the finalisation of the border demarcation with Kosovo, which deserves to be appreciated.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, took part in this question and answer over email. It was compiled by Altin Raxhimi with Darko Duridanksi.

This Q&A was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative, established and supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.

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