Shifting Currents in the Balkans

21 August 2018 – London, UK

by Chris Murray

Turkey’s internal difficulties have been cause for relations with its NATO allies to have been declining for some time, as has been well documented by this writer. From the failed coup to the subsequent purge that has followed, there seems to be no end in sight to current troubles. The long-term state of emergency has witnessed the loss of some 10,000 members from the Turkish military – including several high-level officers. The economic consequences have been severe with the Turkish lira plummeting in value while inflation remains high and rising loan defaults clearly demonstrates that President Erdoğan has little economic grounding.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Mevlut Cavusoglu

Turkey has, meantime faced a host of problems in regards to their international relations. In response to the erosion of human rights and the rule of law, the EU has squashed any question of Turkish accession. Plans to reform the EU-Turkey customs union have also been halted. Turkey has meanwhile been finding relations with the NATO, and the US in particular increasingly tense. US involvement in Syria, and support for the Kurdish forces there, has been a source of tension. Inversely, Turkish activity along the Syrian border, as well as relations with Russia, has been a problem for the US.

With the election of President Trump questions emerged over how relations between Turkey and both the US as well as NATO might be affected. In light of recent announcement of US sanctions against Turkey, it would seem that President Trump, like President Erdoğan, is willing to create a considerable wake in his decision making. This further breakdown in Turkish relations with their Western Allies comes at an importune time when Russian activity along the periphery of the Mediterranean challenges NATO with uncertainties wherein stable relations with Turkey would remain beneficial.

Russia is an exceedingly difficult issue for Turkey. Turkey’s downing of the Russian fighter jet and the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara are not far from memory. However, attempts at normalizing Russo-Turkish relations have been pursued by both Moscow and Ankara. One major driver of these efforts is perceived mutual interests in Syria. Another is a shared objection to current US sanctions, which appears to be driving Turkey and Russia closer together.

Complicating Turkey’s relations with the US still further is the matter of Turkey’s posturing with its immediate neighbours. The Kurdish issue is well established but beyond this Turkey is in a mad dash with Iraq and Syria to shore up control of two vital rivers in the region which is causing some such alarm they fear that it might ignite a ‘water war.’

The combination of the above factors foreshadows a significant geopolitical shift in the region that should be cause for consideration. Current US policies in the Balkans, when juxtaposed against those of Russia, seem poised to only promote this shift. Turkey’s continued efforts to remind the world that it exists not in either camp but instead as its own regional power also plays a role in the looming shift as President Erdoğan seeks to carve an independent path forward for Turkey. This combined with President Erdoğan’s continual consolidation of power and the increasingly authoritarian appearance of the Turkish Government may serve as “impossibly disruptive” to Turkey’s continued relations with NATO and the West. This would likely only further damage Turkey’s current financial situation and could in fact significantly undermine President Erdoğan’s hold over the country in the long run and sow the seeds of future chaos in Turkey and by extension the region.

Joint press point with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of Montenegro, Milo Dukanovic

Meanwhile, current US posturing with regards to Turkey’s Balkan neighbours adds even greater concern to the current situation. It seems to be an indication of a willful indifference on the part of the US to the region. A region wherein, Russia has been involved in a failed coup in Montenegro, and prolonged political turmoil has plagued Macedonia. The Balkans is a region that could very well destabilize the current, rather precarious geopolitical balance that exists in this part of the world. President Trump’s startling comments concerning Montenegro as the country relates to NATO and article 5 seems to indicate the US view towards the Balkans, and with it, the region itself is shifting in a disconcerting direction.

Feature Photo:  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, 3 April 2018, Wikimedia Commons, 2018

Inset Photo:  NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Mevlut Cavusoglu – 2018, NATO, 2018

Inset Photo:  Joint press point with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of Montenegro, Milo Dukanovic – 2018, NATO, 2018

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

Chris is a PhD student at King’s College London, Department of Defence Studies. He holds both a BA in Anthropology and an HBA in History from Lakehead University, as well as an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He specializes in irregular conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, insurgency, revolution, guerrilla warfare, resistance movements, and rebel forces. His primary area of focus is the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. Chris has served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, as well as an advisor to the office of a Member of the Parliment of Canada.
cmurray@defencereport.com