“We write less than we say
We say less than we know
We know less than we can find out”
(A modified version of David Snowden’s phrase concerning Knowledge Management)
Turkey’s geopolitical view of the geographical region encompassing the Balkans and the Black Sea, along with the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, is what is widely known as the “Neo-Ottoman policy”.
That translates in modern-day diplomatic language, as an attempt to re-establish spheres of influence by Turkey including former peripheries of the Ottoman Empire.
Under this approach, Ankara strives to “take under its wings” small countries such as FYROM in order to upgrade its reach and play an active role in political and economic culminations.
The Turkish minority in FYROM
There are around 80,000 Turkish-descent citizens in FYROM that date their setllement back in the Ottoman era, when they were transferred mainly from Minor Asia or locals converted to Islam, often forcibly, by the ruling Turkish class. They are mostly concentrated in the areas of Vitola, Tetovo, Reshen and Sendar Zoupa.
In general the Turkish community retains good relations with the rest of the Muslim minorities in the country that reach up to a third of the population, approximately 800,000 people. It is widely estimated by demographists and political analysts that in the next generation or so, the low birth rates of the Christian Orthodox population and the immigration movement towards Western Europe will make the Muslims the absolute majority, thus changing the political and social landscape, possibly in an irreversible manner.
The main political group that unites the Turkish minority is the Turkish Democratic Union that has already achieved to publish numerous newspapers and periodicals and has its own radio & TV air time.
Moreover, there are about 60 state Turkish schools in FYROM and a college in Tetovo. In addition private institutions offer Turkish language and culture lessons being subsidized by Ankara and the University of Skopje offers courses on Turkish studies.
Over the past few years there are bilateral cultural agreements between the two countries, whilst Turkish university and state officials often visit the Ottoman era monuments in the country and actively endorse them by subsidizing them.
Further that includes frequent public relations campaigns and joint seminars and conferences where Turkish institutions advertise the “importance of the Ottoman legacy” in the country.
Continuing, the Fetullah Gulen foundation, an all-powerful Islamic cultural and civic society apparatus in Turkey, that pursues the so-called “Turkish Islam”, maintains language houses in Skopje and Gulen himself has visited the country and has met most of the local leadership.
The Turkish minority has quite an elevated role in the domestic political arena and its members serve in many branches of public life, one notable example being Srgan Kerim, a high-ranking diplomat who was a chairman of the UN general assembly for a term, representing his country.
There is also a well-developed nexus between the Turks in FYROM and Istanbul encompassing both cultural exchanges and most importantly commercial ones. In fact the main linkage between the two countries is the existence of the Turkish minority.
In general Turkey due to its opposition with Greece, follows a policy of embracing any state that has a bilateral difference with Athens. Moreover, the ideal geopolitical placement of FYROM between Albania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, provides a foothold for Turkish political influence in the turbulent Balkan Peninsula.
On May the 6th in 2008 the President of Turkey, Gul, paid a visit to Skopje in order to invest in political terms of the disappointment of the local government against Greece’s veto in April that year in the Bucharest NATO summit in relation to the application by FYROM in that organization.
The Turkish president stayed for 4 days and promised a wide range economic cooperation with Skopje and its support for a future NATO entrance. Although none of those were ever materialized, the nationalistic circles in FYROM played along and portrayed the image of Ankara as a sort of regional benefactor.
It is also important to note that the same circles were laid to believe that Turkey would assist them into easing the relations between the central government and the restive Albanian minority. It was well proved up to date that Turkey simply gave the same promises to the Albanian side as well, wanting to maintain its influence there as well.
The international link
The cooperation extends in an international level as well. The organization ” The United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD)”, received on the 11th of September 2008, 300,000 USD from the “Turkish Coalition of America (TCA)” which is very much under the auspices of the Turkish diplomatic corps and follows a state oriented policy of Ankara in USA.
According to news reports at that period the money offered were about to be used in order for the UMD to establish an office in New York, a city with significant Greek presence but minimum Slavic-Macedonian.
Hence suspicions were raised by the Greek side that, Turkey is basically buying the UMD in order to use it as a lobby front against Greek interests in a USA State where also Turkey has little presence either through an immigrant population or by its own organizations.
The TCA has as a President G .Lincoln McCurdy, who was between 1998 and 2004 the general director of the American-Turkish Council (ATC) in Washington, the forefront of the Turkish lobby in the States.
He has served as a general consular in Istanbul between 1980 & ‘84 and maintains since then strong links with the country. The legal counselor of TCA was at that time Gunay Evinch who also supports the legal proceedings of the Turkish Embassy in Washington when needed and also is the attorney of another organization, named Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA).
Gunay Evinch seems to be the main link of the relation between TCA and UMD. According to various reliable journalistic sources, he was sighted on the 20th of July 2008 on a demonstration in USA where he placates were raised, stating “Greek troops have occupied Macedonia” along with similar slogans. Moreover, he has stated in interviews in the Turkish media that “Turks and the Macedonians are the best friends” and he thanks them “For the support they are handing out”.
Lastly Evinch is also linked to Turkish-Cypriot political circles and in sort provides a clear cut outlook, of the so-called “Neo-Ottoman” policy that spreads from the edges of the Eastern Mediterranean up to the Central Balkans while being a staunch supporter of the Turkish lobby in USA.
In Istanbul it is roughly estimated that 100,000 citizens claim their descent from the Turkish minority in FYROM, and quite a few of those have attained positions in the diplomatic and military establishment of Turkey. In Vienna the local immigrant Slavic Macedonian groups that are involved in heroin smuggling include amongst their ranks Turkish minority members, an interesting aspect since the Albanian immigrants from FYROM, although coming from the same country, form their own crime groups and operate separately often antagonistically to the former.
As far as the heroin illegal trade is concerned, the Balkan narcotics axis has as main transit components Istanbul and Skopje on route to Western Europe. In FYROM, the Turkish groups from Istanbul form a significant segment of the crime kingpins, along with the so-called Kosovo mafia, two contraband networks in close cooperation to each other since the early ’90’s. Illegal immigration is also another sector by which crime groups from Istanbul find opportunity to establish bases in FYROM and cooperate with local groups.
The main aim of Turkey is to form an all-encompassing strategy as far as its relations with FYROM are concerned, so as to gain formidable political influence. Since Ankara follows the same policy in Albania, Bosnia and lately in Sanjak in Serbia, one can conclude that FYROM is another point towards the creation of a Turkish axis in the Balkans.
In addition the Muslim minorities in Greece, Bulgaria and Moldavia are also courted by Turkey in a grand strategy that is being implemented continuously over the past generation, with mixed results though.
Concluding, it must be noted that the aforementioned cover a small fraction between the relations of Turkey and FYROM, which is an issue that will gather importance in the near future. What has to be noted is that each country has a different approach to the relationship they are trying to form.
Turkey is interested in influencing the whole of the Balkans mainly by exploiting its minorities there and on a second level, through the use of investment incentives for the Turkish companies.
FYROM on the other hand is mostly interested with its NATO accession process and its perennial anxiety of neighboring with stronger countries.
In any case, a relationship between the two states has already attracted the attention of its neighbors, a development that will eventually result in some sort of diplomatic initiative by Athens, Sofia, Tirana or Belgrade.
What remains to be seen, is what consequences may arise from the above, in a region such as the Balkans where the historical memories are very much alive and the balance of powers a very strong preoccupation for each country.
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