The strong ties between Turkey and Kosovo, does Ankara plan to become more actively involved in the dialogue?

Kosovo i Turska
Source: Klan Kosova

Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Kosovo's independence, and President Erdogan's sympathies towards former President Hashim Thaci are well-known. Ankara has been far ahead of other "donors" in supplying weapons to the KSF, including armored vehicles and drones, in the process of building the Kosovo Army. However, Turkey is also keen on maintaining good relations with Belgrade, especially in terms of economic cooperation, and Kosovo Online interlocutors agree that Ankara could potentially utilize its influence on Pristina more effectively in the Brussels dialogue.

What Belgrade primarily objects to regarding Ankara are precisely the deliveries of weapons to the KSF.

It's also worth noting that the commander of KFOR is Turkish General Ulutas, and in terms of the number of soldiers in this mission, Turkey is among the top three contributing countries.

Professor Dr. Irfan Kaya Ulger from Kocaeli University in Turkey emphasizes that Turkey has historical and cultural ties to the region. He also states that Ankara's close relations with Albania and Kosovo do not pose a threat to Serbia.

"Regarding the military cooperation between Ankara and Pristina, it demonstrates that Turkey supports the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Kosovo, and Belgrade's concern about this is unjustified," Ulger says and adds that Hashim Thaci is a very close friend of Erdogan, and Turkey, as he emphasizes, desires democracy, respect for borders, and peace in the Western Balkans.

Ulger also believes that the Western Balkans today serve as a buffer zone between great powers.

"On one side, the EU and the US, on the other side, Russia, and even China seek to establish dominance in that area. Turkey is aware of all of this, having historical and cultural ties to the region. Today, Turkey has close relations even with Serbia. By using these relations and its influence on Serbia, Turkey seeks to prevent the deepening of conflicts. Erdogan has taken the initiative in this context once or twice. He particularly made it clear to Aleksandar Vucic that Serbs in northern Kosovo should not be encouraged and that Serbia should respect Kosovo's territorial integrity. But this is the reality. Turkey's close relations with Albania and Kosovo do not pose a threat to Serbia. Serbia has been negotiating with the EU since 2014 and has committed to respecting the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Serbian nationalists, on the other hand, encourage the Serbian minority living in Kosovo on one side and in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the other side to engage in separatism to unite with Serbia. Russia is a country that supports this. When Ukraine was attacked, only Belgrade in Europe held demonstrations in favor of Putin. Therefore, I want to state that Turkey's close relations with Kosovo do not pose a threat to Serbia. But if Serbia supports separatists in Kosovo or in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey is against it," he says.

Regarding military cooperation between Turkey and Kosovo, including equipment procurement by Pristina for the KSF, he notes that Ankara sells defense industry products to many, including Kosovo.

"This is a normal exchange. It also shows that Turkey supports Kosovo's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Serbia's concern about this is unjustified. In fact, this situation has not created a military imbalance in the region. There are peacekeeping forces in both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The inviolability of borders and non-interference in internal affairs are the most basic rules of international law. One by one, countries in the region are joining NATO on one side and the EU on the other side. Under these circumstances, Turkey's balanced policy should not disturb anyone. However, it is in the interest of Serbian nationalism, which has expansionist ambitions, to take into account the Turkish factor," the professor from Kocaeli University says.

Support from Turkey to Kosovo is reflected not only in military and political assistance but also in strong cultural and economic ties between Turks and Albanians, Predrag Rajic from the Center for Social Stability believes, highlighting that these elements significantly contributed to Pristina's confidence in the international arena.

However, he stresses that we should not overlook the respect that Belgrade deserves from Ankara and the fact that Turkey respects Serbia's national interests, thus "not firmly supporting just one side."

"When the Albanians in Pristina declared independence of so-called Kosovo in 2008, Erdogan stated that on that day the younger Turkish brother had been born," Rajic said to Kosovo Online, emphasizing that Ankara consistently nurtured such a policy.

He emphasizes that from this element of religious affinity, other elements of cultural connectivity arise, and consequently, political alliances between the two peoples.

"For example, we often mention Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, who was a grand vizier and of Serbian origin. Albanians have four such figures in their history, four grand viziers who were ethnically Albanian. Not to mention that Albanians, especially those living in Kosovo, have largely embraced Islam, which is again an important connection. We have seen throughout history in our region that wars can often be religious," Rajic emphasized.

He assesses that Albanians have been investing in their connection with Turkey for years, adding that there is also a significant part of the Albanian diaspora from Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Albania residing in Turkey.

He also recalls that Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, since coming to power, has been diligently and thoroughly working to approach Turkey, relying on two pillars of his foreign policy - the West in a broader sense, primarily the United States, the EU, and Italy on one side, and Turkey on the other.

In addition to the cultural pattern, Rajic points out that the relations between Turks and Albanians intertwine through strong economic ties and military cooperation.

"It has often happened that in some international missions, Albanian soldiers were under Turkish command, and they themselves later said that they had felt most comfortable and natural at the time," Rajic noted.

He recalls that Turkey participated in the bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 and supported Kosovo's secession even before President Erdogan, indicating a continuity in Ankara's official policy.

According to his words, it is obvious that there is a consensus in Turkish society that efforts should be made to strengthen Albanian capacities, and that Albanians, along with Bosniaks, are certainly the most important allies in this part of Europe.

"When you ask Albanians which nation they feel close to and which nation is important to them, all those who are of the Islamic faith will surely say the Turks, and I assume that even the Turks who are involved in this region will certainly look at Albanians with sympathy," Rajic said.

He emphasizes that Turkey has been lobbying fiercely, and continues to do so, for Kosovo in some periods, reminding that it is no secret that some Muslim countries have recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence precisely under that influence.

"It is not a secret, for example, that Pakistan recognized the so-called Kosovo and its unilateral declaration of independence under the influence of Turkey, and that Egypt, before Sisi came to power, during Morsi's time, recognized the so-called Kosovo under the influence of Turkey. These are two major and important states in the Islamic world, and Turkey has made efforts to secure support for Kosovo in that part of the world, not just in the political West," Rajic pointed out.

He observes that Turkey's influence is significant in Kosovo, and Pristina relies heavily on that side, which it will continue to do in the future, both militarily, politically, and economically.

He pointed out that even if the US made an isolationist decision to withdraw from Kosovo, the Turks would not do so. They are, he emphasizes, more militarily present in Kosovo than the US.

"As much as they fit it into a broader context, politically, culturally, and historically, the fact that as soon as they came to Kosovo when they formed their military base within KFOR, they named it Sultan Murat, which is a fairly clear message," Rajic said.

He concluded that Turkey's support for Kosovo boosts Pristina's confidence on the international stage, adding that at times, elements of the Albanian political elite in Kosovo see Ankara as more of an ally than Berlin or Washington.

"Despite Kosovo's orientation towards the US, there is an element that is clerical in their elite and is based on Islamic tradition and has not accepted the policy that Rugova, for example, tried to promote, that all Albanians should convert to Christianity to integrate more easily into Europe. Instead, they have remained true to the old traditions from the time of the Ottoman Empire. They rely politically very much on Turkey, and in that context, they are pleased with the fact that Turkey today is far more serious and influential in the region than it was twenty years ago," Rajic pointed out.

Commenting on the relationship between Serbia and Turkey, Rajic emphasizes that Ankara and Belgrade maintain good relations, primarily based on strong economic cooperation.

"Turkey invests a lot, especially in those areas that are strategically very important to us, such as those towards Kosovo, which have been facing the problem of depopulation for decades if not centuries. In this context, Turkey wants to listen to the Serbian position and wants to invest here, and economic cooperation to be stronger than it has been," he noted.

He also notes that Turkey has had a fairly constructive role in recent years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in the Sandzak region, where our fellow citizens of Bosniak nationality reside.

Thanks to Turkey, as he assesses, the relations between Serbs and Bosniaks are at a very high level, and there is a high degree of integration of Bosniaks into Serbian society, which, he points out, has not always been the case.

He recalled that President Erdogan when visiting Novi Pazar and Belgrade, had sent messages that Serbia should be a strong state and an integrative society that would provide a good framework for the development of relations between Serbs and Bosniaks.

"Our policy is indeed such that all ethnic groups can develop freely in accordance with the highest global standards, and that is a fact, but Turkey's policy in this region is ambiguous. They support Albanian interests in Kosovo, that is clear, but on the other hand, they often played a stabilizing role in the rest of the region and Sandzak, as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, advising, especially Bakir Izetbegovic and official Sarajevo, not to escalate tensions with Republika Srpska," Rajic said.

Serbia and Turkey have their specific historical legacy from the previous period, from which messages should be drawn, Rajic emphasizes, pointing out that it is important to insist on the elements that connect the two countries because a good part of Serbian culture has Oriental origins.

"The fact is that this part of our identity is something we have built in relation to the Turks and there are elements that bind us, not just those that historically divide us. I believe we should always insist more on the elements that connect us, to connect culturally as much as possible, economically, where we have already made significant progress, and then stronger political and economic ties will emerge from that, and ultimately Turkey will take even more into account what the Serbs have to say, which it already does," Rajic believes.

He emphasizes that Serbia, under the leadership of President Aleksandar Vucic, has become the pivot of the region and an indispensable factor, which is well known in Ankara, so they always take Belgrade's stance into account.

"This does not mean that they will change their strategic course in the Balkans and change something that has been their policy for centuries, specifically when it comes to relations with Albanians, but it means they will consider our interest and will not rigidly always take only one side, especially not when it is at the expense of our vital national interests. It is precisely in that maneuvering space, which may not be too large, that we should seek our opportunity when it comes to relations with Turkey," Rajic concluded.

Journalist Visar Duriqi believes that the United States and Turkey, as NATO members, share the same interest in the Balkans, and Ankara would not take any action in Kosovo without coordination with Washington.

"The relationship between Kosovo and Turkey must be viewed from a historical perspective, dating back to the times when Albanians were forced to flee from Nis and emigrate to Turkey. Now there is a large community of Albanians who barely speak Albanian but identify themselves as Albanians. It is estimated that there are now five million of them in Turkey, and some relatives are in Kosovo and call themselves muhajirs – these are people whom Rankovic forced to leave their estates in Nis and its surroundings," Duriqi says.

He emphasizes that Turkey has always supported Kosovo regardless of who the prime minister was.

"As far as relations between countries like Kosovo and Turkey are concerned, nothing has changed with any government. Cooperation has been constant. In any area, Turkey has supported Kosovo regardless of who the prime minister was," Duriqi believes.

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo back in 2008 after its declaration of independence, and the fact that Kosovo has begun to purchase Turkish drones is an important sign that relations are deepening even on the military front, according to Dr. Prof. Birgul Demirtas from the Turkish-German University in Istanbul, Department of Political Science and International Relations.

As noted by the interlocutor of Kosovo Online, "Kosovo is one of the key countries for Turkey in the Balkans."

"Turkey supported the process of Kosovo's recognition by other countries, and Ankara still has its soldiers present in the KFOR mission," she states.

On the other hand, as she emphasizes, the cooperation between Pristina and Ankara cannot jeopardize Turkey's relations with Serbia.

"Turkey and Serbia have agreed to disagree on the Kosovo issue. They have completely different policies toward Kosovo, however, they have managed to separate their relationship. They collaborate in many fields, but regarding Kosovo, they have different approaches. They accept that they have different views on Kosovo," she says.

When asked about the extent of Turkey's influence in Kosovo and the Western Balkans, the professor from the University of Istanbul asserts that Ankara is an important regional actor in the Balkans.

"It is a part of the region, and among its multiple identities, it also has a Balkan identity. Turkey has an influence on kindred groups. Alongside TIKA investments, cultural institutes like Yunus Emre, Turkish scholarships, and the local diplomacy of Turkish municipalities, there is a wide range of institutes and actors playing an active role in the region. Turkish diplomacy in the Balkans transcends the boundaries of classical foreign policy. However, it should be noted that Turkey is not a regional hegemon. Instead, it is an important regional actor that influences the region through its activities," she says, adding:

"I believe that Turkey can play a mediating role between Serbia and Kosovo because it has friendly relations with both. Turkish decision-makers can use the experience of trilateral mechanisms initiated in 2009 regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina as inspiration. Turkey can attempt to create a new dialogue mechanism by bringing together political and economic actors from both countries. The diplomacy of the two-track Turkish business associations can be revitalized to bring together economic actors from both countries. The TOBB initiative (Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey) from 2015 can serve as a model in this regard," Demirtas says.

Military analyst Aleksandar Radic emphasized that Turkey and Kosovo were building a "brotherhood in arms," which, as he points out, is part of Ankara's broader plan to build bridges and strengthen Turkish influence in the Balkans. Radic states that Turkey is equipping the KSF with a wide range of weaponry.

"At the moment, Turkey and Kosovo are building a brotherhood in arms. Over the past few years, Turkey has been sending large quantities of weapons and military equipment to the KSF, and these are not trivial means. Among them are anti-tank guided missile systems with a range of four kilometers, 120-millimeter mortars, and much more," Radic told Kosovo Online.

He notes that until a few years ago, Kosovo was expected to foot the bill for the weapons, but now that bill is no longer as important because, as he says, Ankara's political imperative is to strengthen its influence in the Balkans.

The arming of Kosovo, he emphasizes, is part of a broader political project through which Turkey is building bridges and bulwarks toward the countries of the Western Balkans, wherever they deem it politically expedient.

Radic says that when the relationship between Kosovo and Turkey is brought up, military cooperation immediately comes to the forefront, which involves arming and military equipment, training KSF personnel, various courses, and joint exercises, both bilateral and multilateral.

He recalls that KSF members had the opportunity to participate in broader NATO exercises in Turkey and engage in live-fire exercises on a Turkish range. However, Radic points out that the Turkish military presence in Kosovo is not only what is visible and talked about, but there is also much "strange activity around the airport in Djakovica."

"That place was built by the Italians after the withdrawal of Yugoslav security forces in 1999 to supply and maintain communication with the Italian contingent in the Metohija area. When the need for such engagement passed, the Italians withdrew and left the airport empty. There were various stories in Kosovo about how some commercial flights should be arranged, but none of that materialized in the end. Now the purpose of that airport is mysterious because unmanned aerial vehicles Bayraktar TB2 are located there. They are presented as KSF equipment, but those of us who are in the interested part of the public somehow think that they are still in Turkish hands," Radic said.

According to him, there is no evidence that these drones are owned by the KSF because then they would be under the control of KFOR, or NATO.

The fact that TB2 aircraft flew at will during some crisis moments, such as the incident in Banjska, indicates that they belong to a third party, Radic explains, adding that only Turkey can be the operator given that these are aircraft of Turkish production.

When asked whether Turkish support boosts Kosovo's confidence on the international stage and emboldens Pristina for military plans, Radic emphasizes that Pristina has had the support of most Western countries and has never been questioned by leading NATO or EU member states that Kosovo is an independent country.

From their perspective, it has been so, and they have helped strengthen the KSF, as Radic notes.

"But when new laws were passed in December 2018, and when these forces were tasked with protecting Kosovo's territorial integrity and sovereignty, meaning the conventional task of the army, KFOR's stance was clear – we stick to the old law," the analyst reminded.

He pointed out that the duality of Western powers looks strange but explains that when Americans, Germans, and others help arm Kosovo, it is more or less visible, which is not the case with Turkey.

"Turkey's ambition is a new support for Pristina, and a force has been created that, not for some pragmatic and momentary reasons but for reasons deeply rooted in history that have a solid, strategic, and sustainable basis, supports Kosovo at this moment," Radic concluded.

He warns not to forget when Erdogan visited Prizren a few years ago and said, "Turkey is Kosovo, and Kosovo is Turkey."

That was, he explains, a very clear message that applies to both Pristina and Sarajevo.

"Turkey has been showing this for the last two years in part. If you are allies of Turkey, you will get a Turkish automatic rifle to put on your shoulder," he notes.

Commenting on the relationship between Belgrade and Ankara, Radic assesses that Serbia is trying to play in the given circumstances, emphasizing that it is not intelligent to confront Turkey.

"At this moment, Serbia must swim and seek an intermediate space because the Turkish government knows how to show positive signals to Belgrade, but the fact is that there is no longer talk of buying Turkish drones and military-technical cooperation, which until recently was one of the topics. Vucic boasted a lot about his good relations with Erdogan, he said that he had called Erdogan on the phone and arranged the procurement of Bayraktar TB2, but since those drones are at the Djakovica airport, the goodwill of Belgrade to further deal with that topic has somehow been lost," Radic pointed out.