The Balkans Project

Words and art from the Balkans

Interview with Sule Kut

By • Feb 21st, 2010 • Category: Interviews

Sule Kut, International Relations, Bilge University

Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey and the Balkans

Turkey’s relations with the Balkans go well beyond the Republic of Turkey relating to independent nation states. We are talking about the current relationships of peoples who have lived together for almost six centuries. Turks wanted to forget this connection during most of the Republican era. The end of communism was a critical time because it allowed Turkey and Turkish citizens to realize that there were other peoples with whom they had close connections. Not that long ago, in the early 20th century, there was a significant refugee flow from the Balkans into today’s Turkey. When the wall of communism fell, these human connections still existed.

These connections were three-fold. Ordinary people started to hear more about Turks living outside the borders of Turkey and also about Muslim people living in the Balkans. And these people were basically victims. This is a very important point. It was in 1989 when Bulgaria basically ethnically cleansed the Turkish population. That was the first time that Turks realized that people speaking the same language were being mistreated there.

The second connection came with the collapse of Yugoslavia: the disintegration of the country and the wars. Turkey developed a social interest in the Balkans. It was not Turkey’s plan to get involved in the affairs of the Balkan nations. It happened a bit differently. It was not only the Bosniaks – the Moslems in Bosnia – who were looking toward Ankara. It was also Croats and Serbs and Macedonians – everyone from former Yugoslavia. Plus the Romanians and the Albanians and the Bulgarians: everyone was looking toward Ankara. I remember that it was quite a hectic time for diplomacy. There was not only the Balkans but also the first Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkey had to pay attention to what was going on and act in connection with the international community

The third reason was that for the first time the Balkans formed a huge free market, and it was possible for Turkey to enter the Romanian market, the Bulgarian market, and so on. So this was a motivation for Turkey to get involved in the Balkans.

At that time, Turkish involvement was primarily in terms of economic and diplomatic relations. It was supporting countries in need, like Macedonia, and it was getting involved in the peace operations in Bosnia. Then there was a normalization and consolidation of relations. That was a time also when the individual states of the Balkans stopped looking at Ankara and started looking at Brussels. So the EU connection became more important. Turks were surprised that Romania and Bulgaria became EU member states – this was a bit strange for ordinary Turkish citizens to hear.

Turkish Foreign Policy

This government now in Turkey has a bit different motivation behind its foreign policy. It is showing a genuine interest in neighboring countries. It has declared a “zero problem policy” with neighbors. This policy applies not only to the Middle East but also to Armenia and to Western neighbors. It’s not just that Turks are implementing this policy but also how warmly this policy is being received.

Not many people would imagine that the Serbians would ask for the mediation of Turkey between different Bosniak groups in the Sandjak region of Serbia. Turks were the bad guys in Serbian history. So what is happening? Turkey has established itself as a credible and powerful player in the region.

So, yes, this is the irony: that Turkey had no power when Balkan countries were looking at Ankara and now that these countries are looking at the EU Turkey has more power.

In 20 years’ time, Turkey has changed. It has a more open foreign policy, a more open economy. There used to be criticisms leveled against Turkey, when some Balkan politicians were saying that “the new Ottomans are coming.” And I was writing one article after another arguing that it was not neo-Ottomanism. But now, the new government has taken for granted that it is fed by the history of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey is more powerful now than 20 years ago. 9/11 was critical because after 9/11 and the rise against Islam, Turkey was for the first time put on the table as an example to others. But what kind of model would Turkey be – a model Moslem society or a multiethnic nation-state or a state that made the transition to a democratic regime? There’s also Turkish economic power and how Turkish businessmen are doing business in neighboring countries. There’s also the Turkish educational system – which we criticize inside Turkey – but many Turkish schools opened in the Balkans, and they are held up as the best schools.

So, Turkey has a hard-earned, justifiable visibility today, and out of this has grown an open commitment to be active. Before, there was something like an active foreign policy, but it was a set of systemic changes that required Turkey to be active. Now, we have an active foreign policy because of the will of the government, which is of course building on top of earlier efforts.

Today’s Turkey is willing to use its soft power, and that is a change. Some people may even compare the Turks with the Chinese. Look at Africa. China is in Africa in every sector. At one time Africa was a distant continent for Turkey, but now sub-Saharan Africa is in the attention area of Turkey.

War in the Balkans?

A new Balkan war is getting less and less plausible. Turkey and Greece don’t even fight with one another over Cyprus – why would they fight over Macedonia or Kosovo? I’m aware of the problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the issues connected to Macedonia’s name as well as its membership in the EU and NATO. And there is also Kosovo. But I think the Balkans are more stable today than ever before. Here the EU has been a very significant actor as a source of attraction. Now the problem is the so-called Western Balkans and if they are going to be part of the EU. Five years ago I thought this was the only option for them and the EU would accept them. After all, spending more money on their security against some possible conflict would cost more than the inclusion of them as member states. Now the EU is going over and over this issue. It also feels pressure to consolidate itself.

Even for minorities, I still insist that the situation in the Balkans is much more stable, relatively speaking. I was surprised at how the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina – Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks – how they seemed to live together once again immediately after the war. These people are so strong. It is not easy to live as if nothing had happened. These people started to reconstruct their, relatively speaking, multiethnic lives. It’s very hard to see this in other parts of world. But this kind of life is not so easy after all, and the past will come back to haunt them.

Balkan History

First of all, there are scholars that claim that the Balkans are not just blood and tears. Especially the younger generation of historians – not just in Turkey, but also in the Balkans countries – have already realized that the Ottoman part of the Balkans was not just a matter of oppression but was also a matter of civilization. Some of those scholars, between the lines, suggest that it could be better if not only the Turks but also the Serbs, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Romanians, and Greeks started to claim part of their Ottoman heritage instead of fighting against it.

For Turkey, the Balkans meant something very different. The Ottoman Empire became an empire in the Balkans. From a historically point of view, it is very critical to acknowledge this point. But the Balkans also meant the loss of the empire because the Ottoman Empire really started to disintegrate with the Balkan Wars of 1912-3 when the Moslems and the Turks were expelled from Balkan lands – from Bulgaria, from Greece – in successive waves of migration. The Balkans meant a lost land and the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The Balkans also, interestingly, meant the birth of the Turkish republic. The leaders of the Turkish revolution, of the independence war, and of the young republic all came from the Balkan lands. So, symbolically, the loss of the Balkans led to the gain of today’s Turkey.

There is a certain Rumelian chauvinism in Turkey. The people from that area – the European or Balkan part of the country – usually think of themselves as a little more cultured. Of course there is now a return of the Balkans, from music to art. There is a growing interest in all kinds of Balkan movies. Balkan directors have made Istanbul a second home. I think it is quite healthy that this interest is not an exaggerated interest, not a romantic interest. It is a very practical interest. Especially after the 1990s, when the Turkish people started to come to terms with their history, the Balkans provided one of the most interesting regions outside Turkey. We’re neighbors, like it or not.

There is no debate in Turkey, like in Slovenia for instance, about whether the country is Balkan. The Balkans, through all the human connections, never left Turkey. We feel it here because of family connections. When people were massacred in Bosnia or were running away from the war in Kosovo, it was not for historical reasons but for real, current reasons that Turks paid attention to these situations. Many of these people tried to take refuge in Turkey. In that sense, the Balkans have been significant for us.

After all these years working on Turkey and Turkish foreign policy, I finally came to realize that Turkey is not situated between East and West. Turkey is West and East at the same time. Except for maybe Australia, it is hard to find any other country that’s like this.


“Balkanization” in English has a negative connotation but it is an active process. In Turkish it is grammatically a passive process. Such and such a country is being “balkanized” whereby external powers are dividing that country. In the case of Yugoslavia, of course I’m aware of the role that Germany played. But no one can persuade me that Yugoslavia would have been divided if there had been nothing wrong inside Yugoslavia.


In the beginning of 1990s people started to talk about neo-Ottomanism or criticize Turkey for making moves to create a new Ottoman Empire. There wasn’t much academic debate about it. But there was a good reason why people were talking about this phenomenon: all these newly independent states were being formed on the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. No one is going to recreate the Ottoman Empire, not even this government. But now there is an implicit and sometimes explicit reference to the Ottoman Empire, to its strength. There is almost a resurrection of pride in our distant past. In 2000, the 700th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire was celebrated in an elegant way, but a bit humbly. But if it were held today, it would be a much more flamboyant celebration.

Why do people now talk about neo-Ottomanism? Because Turkey is being very active in surrounding regions, from the Caucasus to the Balkans to the Middle East, all former parts of the Ottoman Empire. Personalities make a difference here. The current foreign minister wrote about his strategic vision years ago as an academic. I find it very lucky that he can put his academic vision into practical achievement. He must feel good!

If you want zero problems with your neighbors, and not just territorial neighbors, that means you are going to improve relations with those neighbors with whom you do not have good relations, such as Armenia. But what if you are losing one of your neighbors while making friends with others, such as losing Israel while gaining Syria or losing Azerbaijan while gaining Armenia? The real success is to gain the hearts and minds of Syrians and Palestinians, which Turkey already had, while not losing Israel.

Why the loss of relations with Israel now? I think there is a deep down anti-Israel feeling in at least some of the people in the AKP. I feel that if these attitudes are approaching racism then it is something that must be questioned. It’s no longer foreign policy but a matter of mentality. I’ve never lived in an anti-Semitic country. This country has been very proud of its treatment of Jewish people.

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  1. [...] Interview with Sule Kut, The Balkans Project (Feb 21, 2010). Discusses Turkey’s relation to the Balkans, and re-frames the conception that the Balkans are inherently violent. Discusses the influence of the Ottoman empire as both civilizing and oppressive. [...]

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