ACADEMIC CONFERENCE “TURKEY IN THE BALKANS” AT THE REPUBLIC OF SRPSKA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
Under the patronage of Prof. Emil Vlajki, Vice President of the Republic of Srpska, an academic conference entitled “Turkey in the Balkans” was held November 30 – December 2, 2012at the Republic of Srpska Academy of Sciences in Banja Luka. Lectures were read by academics from both entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Turkey, Russia, Israel, USA, and several other countries.
The conference was opened by the president of the RS Academy of Sciences, Dr. Rajko Kuzmanović in the presence of Prof. Vlajki, Republic of Srpska President Milorad Dodik and the Turkish ambassador in Sarajevo, M. Yildiz.
In lectures that were read and discussions that followed, a number of issues were considered, such as “Bosnia and Herzegovina in the neo-ottoman strategy” [Dr. Darko Tanasković], “A century after Kosovo – Turkey’s return” [Dr. Srdja Trifković], “The Ottoman conquest of the Balkans and elements in establishing government” [Dr. Hatice Oruc], “The fallacy of the Turkish model” [Dr. Rafael Israeli], and others.
At the outset of the conference there was robust debate on several fundamental topics between Turkish ambassador Yildiz and Republic of Srpska President Milorad Dodik.
In her lecture, “The Turkish factor in the Balkans in contemporary geopolitical conditions”, academician Jelena Guskova stated that she was not surprised by the renewed and intense presence of Turkey in the Balkans because at a scholarly conference in the nineties Western colleagues with close ties to NATO had made it clear to Russian scholars that Turkey was being assigned a dominant Balkan role within the Alliance’s new strategic concept. Warning of the dangers inherent in the hasty assignment of such “roles”, academician Guskova pointed out that in the Balkans successful policy implementation is impossible without profound study of the history and mentality of the Balkan nations.
Although it is perhaps to be expected that distant actors might encounter difficulty mastering the complex subject matter to which Dr. Guskova alluded, participants in the conference gained the impression that numerous members of the Turkish contingent at the conference, both scholars and diplomats, had also failed to do their “homework”. Their remarks were marked by condescension and unwillingness to take a realistic view of the generally negative assessment that Balkan nations attach to the centuries of Ottoman occupation. This, in turn, provoked disapproval among the participants and caused some tension during the conference.
BALKAN IDENTITY POLITICS, SREBRENICA, AND THE NEO-OTTOMAN FACTOR
In the aftermath of the ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia for short) during the nineties, identity has played a key role in defining actors to themselves and in relation to each other. In that process, the ethnic individualization of the Muslim community has gone the furthest, with an attempt not only to appropriate exclusively the preexisting expression “Bosniak” as the preferred ethnic label, but also accompanied by more or less serious attempts to create practically ex nihilo the entire infrastructure of nationhood, including language and distinct cultural and historical narratives. Could we not say that Alija Izetbegovic’s Islamic Declaration envisages just such a program of ethno-engineering, with a Turkofile Islamic orientation?
Though it was probably generated for an entirely different purpose, the Srebrenica affair of July 1995 has been used opportunistically and has played a significant role in that identity- or, if one wishes, nation-building process. Based on the premise, not necessarily open to rational examination and factual verification, that during the conflict members of the Muslim community in Srebrenica (to which other locales were later added) were the object of genocidal extermination at the hands of Serbian neighbors, Srebrenica was transformed into an archetypal symbol exerting a strong subliminal influence on both the “aggrieved” and the “guilty” party. With regard to the aggrieved Muslim community, the symbolic impact of Srebrenica is to serve as a mobilizing principle around a common, ethnically centered, political agenda, with an implicit existential threat looming in the background, of which Srebrenica is a permanent and dramatic reminder.
On a level deeper than everyday political mobilization, Srebrenica serves also as a “herding” or integrative mechanism in Bosniak identity politics, albeit with a distinctly negative connotation. Viewed through the prism of Srebrenica symbolism, the unique identity of the Muslim community in Bosnia is projected not in sustainable terms, referring to their distinct and positive contribution to general culture and civilization, but within the narrow ambit of their shared real, mythologized, or potential, victimhood.
The issue of whether this is a suitable mechanism for affirming national identity deserves to be given a huge question mark. The essential feature of this methodology of nation building is its confrontational character, imbued with a permanent sense of extreme grievance, which gives rise to acute resentment. Shared resentment may, under certain circumstances, temporarily serve as the cohesive glue uniting a group around a shared agenda. Resentment, however, was aptly described by Nelson Mandela, whose experience in this area is as undeniable as is his wisdom, as “poison that one drinks in the expectation that one’s enemies will die of it”. As a formula for unleashing the newly inaugurated nation’s creative energies, the sense of resentment has yet to prove its effectiveness. But as a confrontational tool, its impact is clear. To the extent that it alienates the community addicted to it from its neighbors, it breeds permanent dependence on foreign patronage.
Turkey would not have much of a role to play in these matters, and would be no more than a distant illusion for Balkan Muslims, but for the assignment it has received from the current hegemon to mind its interests (with permission, one assumes, to also advance its own to a moderate degree) in the Balkans. There is obvious compatibility between the ideology of the current neo-Ottoman regime in Turkey and the emerging Bosniak identity, with its close and insistently reemphasized links to the Islamic faith. In terms of fundamental values, that favors strong solidarity between Sarajevo and Ankara. But even more importantly in terms of political impact, Bosniak identity has been interpreted as automatically applicable, without inquiry into personal self-definition, to all ethnic Slavs without distinction, as long as they profess the Muslim faith. In the framework of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman political agenda and, more importantly, the nation-breaking plans of Turkey’s hegemonistic sponsor, on whose behalf Turkey is permitted to act, that is a made to order circumstance. It means that the geographical spread (with all due respect for the sensibilities of sincere adherents) of the contrived Bosniak identity extends across political boundaries into Serbia (Sandžak or Raška region) and Montenegro. Official Serbia’s total misapprehension of the wider implications of this identity-spreading process was recently illustrated by Premier Dačić’s astonishing statement, made during his Turkish counterpart Erdogan’s visit to Belgrade, that Serbia’s domestic “Bosniaks” perform the valuable function of a “bridge” between the two countries. The very similar role once played by Sudeten Germans as a “bridge” to Czechoslovakia readily comes to mind.
An assessment of the long-term prospects of the identity-building project involving the Muslim community in the central region of the former Yugoslavia cannot be made without taking into account the intentions and interests, and indeed even the future prospects, of its external enablers. The continued support this scheme has been receiving from overseas is strictly conditioned upon the evolving dynamic of relations with the Islamic world as a whole, and it may change overnight to the dismay, confusion, and disappointment of local candidates for synthetic nationhood. As for the role of Turkey, in its ill-advised hubris its regime is now presuming to play in the Balkans the role once performed by Russia as a protector of Orthodox nations under Ottoman rule, but in reverse – as a patron of Balkan Muslims. The ferocious cultural offensive using slick television productions to reinvent Ottoman Turkey, combined with brazen statements of members of its current leadership that the period which is embedded in the collective memory of most Balkan inhabitants as a cultural and anthropological disaster was actually “a success story” – all that speaks for itself. These and many other signs suggest Ankara’s intention to reassert its dominance over a region from which exactly one hundred years ago its predecessor state, at great cost in lives and treasure, was unceremoniously and justly expelled.
But to the perceptive eye signs are also accumulating that the sudden, and to a large degree unnatural, current expansion of Turkey’s influence in a region that it left in ruins after several centuries of misrule, might also come to an end just as abruptly. Turkey’s rulers may be reading more than is warranted into the Balkan role that has been assigned to them and it goes without saying that this applies even more emphatically to their local acolytes, whose narrowness of vision is proverbial. If at some point the decision is taken to pull the plug on Turkey, or if it is reconfigured into something resembling the Anatolian entity envisioned by the Versailles Treaty after the Ottoman defeat in World War I, simply by the operation of the law of unintended consequences given the unpredictability of the tectonic shifts in the Middle East, an entirely new situation could arise. What future, and what conceivable scenarios, are in store for the contrived national identities in the Balkans which owe their inception and sustenance to political machinations rather than to genuine and organic development?
What started as an identity building project at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Sarajevo in September of 1993, has morphed into political dynamite, with foreign powers controlling the fuse. The stage is set for potentially severe further disturbances in the Balkans.
In conclusion, the only defusing thought that comes to mind is Hannah Arendt’s wise injunction: “Only folly could dictate a policy which trusts a distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbours”.