While Turkey's foreign policy in the Middle East has faltered over the last two years in the wake of the Arab uprisings, a region where Turkish diplomacy has racked up some important successes has been the Balkans, where Ankara has been behind a number of significant diplomatic and economic initiatives. But a comment made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent visit to Kosov is threatening to derail Ankara's Balkan express -- and again raises the question of what kind of impact does the mercurial leader's rhetoric have on his country's diplomacy.
During an address made last week while visiting the Balkan mini-state, which declared independence in 2008 after breaking away from Serbia, Erdogan told an audience in the city of Prizren: “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo."
The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Serbian leaders, who not only called for Erdogan to apologize for his comments, but who also announced that they would freeze their participation in an upcoming trilateral meeting between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, part of successful mechanism put in place by Ankara in 2009. From a report on the Serbian B92 website:
[President Tomislav Nikolić] underscored that the scandal triggered by the Turkish prime minister in Prizren constitutes brutal and reckless breach of good neighbourly relations and disrespect and violation of Serbia's sovereignty by a revision of history.
Nikolić said that when he took on the position of the president, he also took on the good relations with Turkey set up by his predecessor, former president Boris Tadić.
In a release, Nikolić said that he did his best to turn the relations into a sincere friendship between the two nations and kept warning the Turkish president that it not proper for Turkish officials to call on other countries to recognise Kosovo's so-called independence.
"The ideas of Kemal Ataturk are no longer the ideas of Turkey's leadership," Nikolić said and underscored that he expects reason to prevail in Turkey and hopes Turkey would apologise to Serbia for the aggression without weapons.
Erdogan's line may have appealed to his Kosovar audience (and to supporters back at home), but in the wider Balkan context, it clearly brought up the kinds of historical associations that Ankara had been working so hard to overcome during the last few years. It's no wonder, then, that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spent the weekend doing damage control in an awkward effort to somehow put what Erdogan said in a positive light. Reports Today's Zaman:
Noting that he had a phone conversation with his Serbian counterpart, Ivan Mrkic, on Sunday morning, Davutoğlu said they comprehensively discussed Erdoğan’s speeches in Prizren and Prishtine.
“I told my dear friend [Mrkic] that when we come to Belgrade we also call it our second home. Belgrade, Prizren and Prishtine are cities that we love very much. Some speeches might be presented as sources of [a diplomatic] crisis when they are taken out of context, but we have enough experience to overcome [such crises]. Both Serbia and Turkey are aware of their difference of opinion on the issue of Kosovo, but both sides are continuing their relations by accepting this difference,” said Davutoğlu.
“Turkey never uses such expansionist, nostalgic language. However, we use the warmest expressions to describe our closeness [to the Balkan states]. Our prime minister also used this language to describe our closeness,” the Turkish foreign minister added.
But papering over Erdogan's words may be hard to do in a region where nationalist sentiments -- and lingering suspicions over Turkey's ambitions -- always run high. As Yavuz Baydar, a Today's Zaman columnist, suggests, Turkey's diplomatic efforts in the Balkans could now very well now find themselves back "in square one." But Baydar points out that the crisis caused by Erdogan's Kosovo comment actually reflects a larger problem for Turkish foreign policy:
Whether read from a written text or ad-libbed, this incident only adds another element to the conviction that the primary enemy of Turkish foreign policy is tactlessness in rhetoric, fed by a delusion of grandeur.
The subject is always the same.
The ill consequences are spreading to a larger geography in Turkey's vicinity -- the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans -- rapidly wasting its chances as a benevolent, influential, trusted, impartial, fair modern power.
The crisis with Serbia only adds to the big troubles of whatever remains of the “zero problem neighborhood” of Ankara.
Indeed, in light of Erdogan's tough talk after the recent coup in Egypt, which served to only put a deep chill on Turkey-Egypt relations, and other cases where his words have undermined Ankara's diplomatic efforts, the question may be asked: Is the PM's rhetoric Turkish foreign policy's greatest liability?