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Erdogan views Kosovo as a neo-Ottoman Vassal State

The extent of Turkey’s influence in Kosovo reached a new milestone with the swift extradition of its citizens.

May 10, 2018 - Visar Xhambazi - Articles and Commentary

Imperial Mosque in Pristina Photo: Fikret Ahmeti (cc) wikimedia.org

A century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of Turkish Republic, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes he can restore the Empire’s lost glory. Erdogan has made a dramatic shift in Turkish politics, from a century-long Kemalist ideology which emphasized a secular and liberal Turkey heading westwards, to a neo-Ottoman foreign policy approach. Neo-Ottomanism drives Erdogan’s foreign policy, combining Ottoman and religious rhetoric to gather his supporters around collective imagination.

Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism encourages increased engagement in regions where the Ottoman Empire ruled before. Erdogan has been using significant resources to increase the Turkish influence in the Balkans, in particular countries with a vast Muslim population. Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism focuses on pushing Turkish firms to privatise national companies, thus giving the opportunity to have a greater influence on Kosovo’s national assets and establish a strong social presence through soft-power. The latter—social presence—is a much easier task considering cultural and religious aspects.

Erdogan wants the citizens of Kosovo to believe that Balkan peoples used to live in harmony under the Ottoman rule. While it is true that the Ottoman Empire did not rule as rigidly as the other European kingdoms of the time, Albanian language was prohibited and slavery was wide-spread, as many Albanians were used as soldiers (e.g. Janissaries). Freedom of Religion was allowed under the millet system; however, non-Muslims were considered second class citizens and were obliged to pay an extra tax. As such, conversion from Christianity to Islam was the only way for local people to be treated equally and prosper. Those who converted to Islam were considered Turks, and served the interests of the Empire, not the local people.

Erdogan’s hold on Kosovo

In 2003, when a Turkish-French firm opened the new terminal in Pristina International Airport, Erdogan proclaimed, “Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo.” This line reflects Erdogan’s intention to make the relationship with Kosovo more than just commerce. Besides the airport terminal, a Turkish firm has also acquired Kosovo’s electricity distribution company. The company is run by Erdogan’s son in law. The Turkish-US consortium Bechtel-Enka built the EUR 700 million highway that connects Kosovo to Albania. This project is the largest one ever carried out in Kosovo.

In order to further improve Turkey’s image in Kosovo, Erdogan has demanded in the past, that the authorities in Kosovo remove negative connotations and terms from school textbooks regarding the Ottoman Empire. While the revisions or harsh criticism are welcomed in order to prevent any tendency for hate and nationalism, no international political leader is in a position to tell other countries how to write their school textbooks.

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) has been helping Kosovo with agricultural programs, medical assistance and school projects. Moreover, TIKA has been renovating Ottoman Mosques and other Ottoman historical buildings. This way Erdogan has managed to keep a close relationship with Kosovo’s Muslims and clerics. This relationship is so strong that the head of the Islamic Community of Kosovo has described Erdogan as “the messenger of God,” a view which according to Islamic teachings is considered heresy.

Other channels of influence include Turkish soap operas and TV dramas, which currently dominate TV screens in Kosovo. Such dramas depict patriarchal families that include love affairs and violence. Others, depict the magnificent rule of the Ottomans and the glorious civilization people once had. Kosovo’s society is underdeveloped and under-educated; consequently, such TV shows help bolster a positive image of Turkey and instill further admiration.     

Involving Kosovo in internal Turkish politics

A decade after independence, this influence reached its zenith with the deportation of six Turkish citizens to Turkey. Making Kosovo the first European country to deport Turkish citizens being accused of having close ties or working with Fetullah Gulen. The Turkish citizens—five teachers and one doctor—worked with schools owned by Fetullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric, political activist and the head of FETO organisation.

Ankara considers the FETO organisation a terrorist one and blames it for the failed coup d’etat in 2016. Gulen has denied such claims and lives in the United States in exile. Kosovo Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj and President Hashim Thaci have denied responsibility, stating they were not aware of the deportations. The revocation of residency, arrest and deportation happened in a matter of hours. They were not officially questioned, nor given the chance to appeal their case at the court. Indeed, a blatant violation of human rights.

The scandalous deportation will further deteriorate the relationship of Kosovo with the European Union. When the West intervened in Kosovo, they wanted to create a stable democratic and multi-ethnic society, not a country where people get deported arbitrarily. The United States, the biggest supporter of Kosovo’s independence granted asylum to Fetullah Gulen and does not consider him a terrorist. If Kosovo truly wants to follow the rule of law and aspires to join the European Union, it must follow the EU’s guidelines and the European Convention on human rights. This type of action will certainly serve the argument of those who insist that Kosovo is a failed country and a failed project of state-building.

Erdogan’s aims to further strengthen cooperation with Kosovo in order to improve Turkey’s image and portray himself as the caring father of the Balkans. The scandalous deportation of six Turkish citizens, alleged terrorists according to Erdogan’s regime, shows how strong its influence is in Kosovo. This is not to say that economic cooperation and a healthy political relationship with Turkey is bad; however, this help and cooperation comes at a price and the last deportation of Turkish citizens confirms that Erdogan views Kosovo as a neo-Ottoman vassal state.

Visar Xhambazi is a graduate student at Old Dominion University.

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