Ankara's Growing Military Cooperation with Albanians: What is Turkey's Plan in the Balkans?

Kurti i Erdogan
Source: Twitter

"Turkey projects its power in the Balkans in the same way it does in Libya, Qatar, and Somalia, where it has contingents of several thousand soldiers. Ankara's foreign policy here operates under a doctrine set by former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which plays on the close ties with Albanians and Bosniaks."

Prepared by: Milos Garic

Two days after a meeting with Albin Kurti, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Ankara will continue to support Kosovo in all areas. Analysts suggest that one possible message from their meeting could be Erdogan's attempt to take over the mediation in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina from Western countries.

For a long time, informed circles have been discussing Erdogan's ambitions to revive the former influence of Ottoman Turkey in the Balkans, and circumstances in recent years have been favorable. As a NATO member, Turkey currently plays a multi-dimensional role in this region: it holds the command of KFOR forces, has established the Sultan Murat military base in Kosovo, strategically relies on Albania, which participates in Turkish military exercises, and has military cooperation agreements with Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as arming and training the KSF, including training their helicopter pilots.

It should be emphasized that Albania is the main support for Turkish influence in the Balkans through a bilateral agreement between the two countries, which established a High Council for Strategic Cooperation, elevating the collaboration to the highest level.

A recent joint exercise between the Kosovo Security Forces and the Armed Forces of Albania at the Biza base, according to well-informed security policy experts, actually demonstrates an aggressive penetration of Turkish influence in the Balkans towards Serbia.

From Soft to Hard Power

After changing the law in 2018, the Albanian authorities in Kosovo intensified the procurement of weapons and military equipment, with Turkey playing a key role in this process regarding serious purchases, not Western countries. Ankara wants to enhance the capabilities of the KSF, providing them among other equipment with self-propelled mortars of 120mm caliber, as well as highly capable and powerful Bayraktar drones.

What do all these developments tell us about Turkey's plans in the Balkans, and how will this affect the future relations between Belgrade and Ankara?

Military-political commentator Ivan Miletic warns that it should be noted that about six million residents in Turkey claim to have Albanian ancestry.

"Turkey itself, due to its geostrategic position inherited from the Ottoman Empire, influences, and is influenced by, its immediate geopolitical environment, especially events in the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East, the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. For this reason, Turkey had a clear soft power policy towards these regions up until 2010, aiming to project its economic power towards stabilizing movements within them. The Organization of Turkic States initiative, where Hungary is an observer, stands out here," Ivan Miletic explains to Kontekst.

Besides, Turkey had a strategy of peace and stability towards its surroundings, positioning itself as a bridge between America and Russia, Europe and the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, the Caucasus, and the Balkans.

"With the onset of the Arab Spring in 2010, Turkey sided with the rebel masses against dictatorial regimes to strengthen its influence in the region and the Arab world. However, this position dragged it into conflicts in Syria and Iraq. As a result, Turkey now has over 150 military outposts - bases, camps, and barracks in these countries. The Arab Spring thus became a turning point in Turkey’s foreign policy strategy, which abandoned soft power and fully turned to a policy of hard power. This change has led to Turkey now having military bases in Libya, Somalia, Qatar, and Sudan, along with existing military infrastructure in Syria and Iraq, while in the Balkans, it utilizes its presence in the NATO pact to project its military power - Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina," Miletic notes.

The NGO "New Line Institute" has published an interesting analysis of Turkey's hard power in an article titled "Mapping the Rise of Turkish Hard Power," released on August 24, 2021.

"The shift from Turkey's soft power to hard power is clearly visible in the Balkans. Turkey's policy in the Balkans aligns with the recommendations and commitments of former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who established a foreign policy doctrine based on Turkey's reliance on Bosniaks and Albanians in the Balkans because they harbor similar sentiments towards Turkey as the Serbs do towards Russia. This doctrine is based on the idea that Turkey, as a regional power, should offer an alternative to Balkan countries during the EU expansion hiatus, which has resulted in the Western Balkan countries remaining in the EU's antechamber without a clear signal of when the next phase of expansion to the Western Balkans will occur," explains Miletic.

Turkey's hard power has also led to economic benefits within the country itself, as relying on strengthening the military-industrial complex, expanding military power in the region, and significantly increasing exports of military industry have made Turkey a strategically independent country.

"Three-quarters of military procurements are made by the Turkish army from domestic manufacturers, which ultimately resulted in Turkey ceasing to be one of the world's largest importers of military equipment—it was third—and becoming one of the leading exporters of military equipment, ranked 13th. For this reason, the Balkans have also become a destination for the export of Turkish military equipment. In addition, as a maritime regional power and a NATO member, Turkey has initiated a doctrine called 'Blue Homeland,' which involves establishing sovereignty over its territorial waters and strengthening the capacity of its navy, which will enable it to procure aircraft carriers and thus project power in the Mediterranean, Ionian, and Black Seas, as well as access ports in Albania, with which it has signed a strategic partnership," states Ivan Miletic.

Hostile Policy Towards Serbia

In this way, Turkey clearly projects its power in the Balkans, just as it already does in Libya, Qatar, and Somalia, where it has contingents of several thousand soldiers.

"The rising tensions between NATO and Russia give Turkey significant strategic importance on NATO's southern flank, thereby also providing the opportunity to negotiate greater military influence in the Balkans, to secure the rear for forces already stationed on the border towards Russia, in Romania. The ability to unilaterally project military power using naval platforms will allow Turkey, even if NATO needs to focus its forces towards challenges posed by Russia, to direct its forces as a new gendarme in the Balkans. This is particularly evident as Turkey extensively works on training, integration, and tactical coordination with the Albanian army, as well as with security forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the KSF in Kosovo," concludes Miletic.

Professor Dragana Mitrovic from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade for Kontekst notes that Turkey shows its detrimental influence in our region, increasingly openly, acting as a hostile state towards the Republic of Serbia.

"Rhetorically, the Turkish president purportedly thunders about the criminal behavior of Israeli troops towards Palestinians in Gaza, while in fact, barely under public pressure, he ceases to purchase oil from the state of Israel and to intensively cooperate militarily with it directly and through Azerbaijan. Not only did Turkey vote for and support the shameful Srebrenica resolution in the UN, which only brings new divisions and discord among neighbors and destabilizes the entire region, but it continues to act as NATO's executor of dirty jobs by arming the retrained KLA into the so-called Kosovo army. Although there should be no other armed formations there except KFOR and our armed forces," explains Mitrovic.

Turkey has given itself the right to arm a formation on the occupied part of Serbian territory whose goal is terror over the Serbian population in Kosovo and preparation for conflict with the Serbian army, judging by the type of armament they receive.

"The latest verbal outburst by the Turkish president, where he compared the Israeli prime minister to Hitler, Karadzic, and Milosevic, shows all the narrow-mindedness and malice of his policy and great hostility towards our state and people and the intention to project his malignant influence in our region. If he wants to maintain good relations with Serbia, he will have to find his compass and return to the path of reason, decency, and constructiveness in relations," concludes Dragana Mitrovic.