Turkey is one of the few countries which uses charity and aid to increase its international profile and extend its influence to other countries, especially in the Western Balkans, while at home fighting against poverty, lack of jobs, rising inflation and an increasingly authoritarian regime.
According to data published in an article in the Daily Sabah, a pro-government daily, Turkey has provided assistance to more than 14 international organizations working to mitigate the damage from the pandemic. In addition, it has provided assistance in various formats to more than 131 countries, from Senegal to Norway and Montenegro, including Spain and China.
Aid distributed was diverse and included ventilators, PPE equipment, COVID diagnostic kits, cash, entire hospitals and new homes for earthquake victims.
Turkey has also distributed vaccines to around 20 countries, including most of the Western Balkans and several African states. The country is currently developing Turkovac, which will likely be pushed back to those who have failed to get their hands on Western vaccines.
According to Daily sabah, âTurkey has enhanced its image as a generous nation through its humanitarian efforts over the past two decades. “
In addition to its humanitarian efforts, Turkey has worked hard to position itself as a leading trading partner in Southeastern Europe and beyond.
At the end of December, the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament Mustafa Sentop announced that 600 Turkish companies operate in Albania, employing more than 15,000 people. He added that his country had invested some 3.5 billion dollars in Albania while reaffirming its support for Tirana’s accession to the EU.
The relationship between Ankara and Tirana is so close that some call President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the Sultan and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama the Pasha, a reference to Albania’s past as part of the Ottoman Empire.
But what is the cost?
French MEP Julie Lechanteux noted in a parliamentary question in May 2020 that Turkey “took advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to show more efficiency and solidarity with the Balkan countries with medical aid diplomacy intended to improve its image in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire and increase its influence in the region.
She continued that the operation seems to be part of a political strategy which “openly clashes with European interests”. âGiven that Turkey is still officially an EU candidate country, what is the Commission’s position regarding Turkish influence in the Balkans? his question is over.
EU Neighborhood and Enlargement Leader Oliver Varhelyi replied that “fostering cooperation and good neighborly relations between EU countries, Western Balkan partners and Turkey is an important element for stability on the European continent “.
After the seemingly endless stay of the Western Balkans in the enlargement waiting room, Turkey is one of the many countries which have decided to consolidate their influence in the region.
Serbia, backed by Moscow, but also Russia, China and Turkey have all used various types of diplomacy, including infrastructural, financial, commercial, medical and mediation, to fill the void in the shape of the EU.
Some analysts say Erdogan nurtures the dream of being a regional intermediary, mainly due to his involvement and close relationship with the leaders of Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Ankara also announced that it would push for Kosovo’s independence while signing secret deals to expel so-called “Gulenists” from the country and neighboring Albania. These cases, involving more than 100 people, were described by United Nations Rapporteurs such as “extraterritorial abductions”, “forced returns” and “enforced disappearances”.
Education in the spotlight
Erdogan, who blames the failed 2016 coup on supporters of exiled educator and cleric Fethullah Gulen, rallied thousands of suspected supporters, imprisoning many and killing others.
It is these extraterritorial kidnappings that many see as one of the most sinister consequences of Turkey’s influence. In addition, during official visits, Turkish officials have was clear they expect states to cooperate in the crackdown on GÃ¼len if they are to enjoy continued mutually beneficial relations.
This âcrackdownâ has also included the massive closures of non-state aligned Turkish schools in various Balkan countries. In Albania, the Turkish government lobbied to close schools allegedly linked to the GÃ¼len movement, and police raided some of them while students were present and without a warrant.
Meanwhile, the affiliated with the state The Maarif Foundation has more than 353 schools in 67 countries around the world.
The foundation was at the center of controversy in May 2021 when the Turkish government increased its funding by 300%, pushing its annual budget to over 140 million euros, at a time when the national education system was suffering.
Education and Science Workers Union leader Orhan Yildirim told Turkish daily Cumhuriyet that this means that many students will not meet their learning goals.
âAll the financial resources saved at the Maarif Foundation mean that the needs of millions of families and students who continue their lives in economic hardship will be transferred elsewhere.
The COVID disaster
In terms of COVID-19, Turkey has some of the highest vaccination rates in the Balkans, but it has not weathered the pandemic well. The government has come under heavy criticism for prioritizing political and economic issues over public health.
The government was also repeatedly accused to manipulate the statistics and hide the real impact of the pandemic.
Now the country is grappling with soaring inflation, currently at 36%, and economists suggest the numbers could reach 50% by spring.
Meanwhile, in Tirana, a black marble monument stands in the middle of the lake park, paying homage to the more than 2,000 people killed in the failed Turkish coup. Replaced once due to vandalism, it is a blatant demonstration of the power that Turkey wields over its former territory.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]