The reality of regional or sub-regional cooperation has increasingly become a fact of the 21st century as many nations move towards closer cultural, economic, and political interaction, if not integration, at the regional level. The Balkan region, which traditionally has been referred to as the region of fragmentation and disintegration, now has a chance to emerge as yet another sub-regional order where, quoting the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu, “a forward looking vision” stands a good chance to prevail. Turkey wants to see the Balkans as a zone of prosperity rather than a region beset by perennial conflicts. The Balkans should not be considered on the periphery of Europe, but instead must attract attention as a sub-region, which may contribute to the EU with its authentic culture of multiculturalism.

Ankara’s policy in the Balkans is in full accord with the “zero problems with neighbors” principle introduced by Minister Davutoğlu. Turkey prioritizes the principles of “regional ownership” and “all-inclusiveness” in conducting its Balkan policy. Turkey had been very active in its role as chairman of the Southeast European Cooperation Process (SEECP), which it assumed in June 2009 for a year. Turkey’s primary goal was to adopt a forward looking vision that may serve as guiding principle for the SEECP as a forum in dealing with the issues in this region. The solution of the regional problems needs institutional and multilateral approach.

In another indication of the value Turkey places on multilateral diplomacy, Minister Davutoğlu initiated the trilateral consultation mechanism with his Bosnian and Serbian counterparts. The mechanism has been crowned by the Trilateral Balkan Summit between Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Bosnian President Haris Silajdzic, and Serbian President Boris Tadic on April 24, 2010, in Istanbul. This was an important step toward reconciliation in the Balkans. The Istanbul Declaration adopted at this summit put forth Gül’s decision to institutionalize these meetings and to set in motion new confidence-building measures, such as Silajdzic’s visit to Belgrade and Tadic’s participation in the commemoration of the 15th  anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in July 2010.

Turkey is also involved in a parallel trilateral process with Croatia and Bosnia at the foreign ministerial level. The parties have already convened twice. During the meeting on April 28, 2010 they discussed possible joint projects that could reinforce the peaceful coexistence of the Bosnian and Croatian communities in Bosnia, and strengthen relations between the two countries.

While embarking on this active diplomacy, Turkey has also tried to ensure that its endeavors are in accordance with the policies of the European Union, the United States, and other international actors. Turkey has repeatedly refuted the idea of having a hidden agenda in the Balkans, as some have suggested. At the policymaking level, Turkey shares the same objective as the EU and US: to help the Balkans fully integrate into the European and Euro-Atlantic structures. For example, on April 22, 2010, in Tallinn, the NATO foreign ministers invited Bosnia to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP). This is a very important step forward. Despite opposition from some major members—including the United States, Germany, France, and Britain—Turkey has strongly advocated this from the very beginning. Ankara’s support will continue and thus help Bosnia in meeting the requirements and commitments arising from MAP status. Turkey is pushing for Bosnia’s eventual NATO membership because it believes that this will help anchor Bosnia in the Euro-Atlantic community and encourage the country’s reform process. More examples of Turkey’s new forward looking approach can be given vis-à-vis countries and issues in the region.

Policy Recommendations and Conclusions

  • Ways to devise new institutional frameworks for the SEECP to guide the work of policy makers in the region will be one of the best policy actions.
  • The initiation of further bilateral, trilateral or other multilateral processes would pave the way for wider regional initiatives, which could be the leading focus of the SEECP forum.
  • The creation of a regional identity and economic cooperation are necessary to deal with issues that could trigger new conflicts.
  •  The EU, as the most successful and democratic regional organization, can be a venue for fostering bilateral and multilateral relations and economic interdependencies throughout the region. The EU membership process is likely to be a powerful catalyst of change for many countries in Southeast Europe.
  • Deepening economic interdependence is important for regional integration. In that respect, the RCC (Regional Cooperation Council) provides an important forum that needs to be strengthened.
  • Turkey is an important trade and development partner for the Balkans. As the only Balkan country in the G-20, Turkey may be the voice of the Balkan countries in this important platform.
  • Energy cooperation is one area that needs further encouragement in which Turkey can play a constructive role.
  • The people of the Balkans should address their common grievances to prevent their shared history from damaging their present and future. They need to introduce a vision of peace to move from the mentality of Balkan wars to the building of the Balkan peace.
  • Reforms in the educational field can also be very important for reducing identity-based conflict. Textbooks should be reviewed so that the young generations can positively interact with each other without being haunted by historical traumas, myths, and prejudices.

* Ph.D., Minister Plenipotentiary, Director of HR Department at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey. Former Fellow at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.