Author: Emanuel Pietrobon – 22/04/2020
There’s a player which is betting hard on Russian-influenced countries but is not the Kremlin: it’s Ankara. The risks are as high as the potential profits in the post-Covid19 crisis
The Balkans are the <<health powder keg>> of the Old Continent due to a series of circumstances (scarcety and low quality of the health infrastructures, widespread poverty and absence of basic services in many rural areas, and pervasive presence of Roma-majority ghettos where the quarantine is hard to enforce and the virus spreads for lack of control and scarce respect for laws), accordingly countries like Romania and Serbia are leading the regional ranking in terms of infections and deaths.
Balkan countries are being targeted by China’s mask diplomacy, just like the rest of Europe, but it’s not the EU the likely winner of this geopolitical competition, it’s Turkey.
Ankara, in coordination with the NATO, is being delivering tons of humanitarian aid to every country in the peninsula, no one excluded: Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro. Serbia and Bosnia are being helped more than any other and this is something that should scary Moscow since we’re speaking of the last NATO-free countries in the region.
On April 8th a Turkish airplane from Incirlik landed Belgrade plenty of aid (masks, protective gears, hospital equipment, test kits) to be delivered to five countries: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
But it was Belgrade, however, the largest recipient of the cargo which included 100,000 protective masks, 2,000 protective suits, 1,500 diagnostic tests. Furthermore, Ankara’s flirt diplomacy is widely backed by the big business. Ever in Serbia, for instance, construction firm Tasyapi, has donated a lot: 25 beds for intensive care, 5 medical aspirators and one surgical, medical clothing and equipment. For those who don’t know, Tasyapi is currently involved in the building of the Sarajevo-Belgrade highway.
While it’s true that Belgrade is a stronghold of the Kremlin and its falldown in the Western orbit is unlikely in the next future, Ankara’s front-line engagement tells us something about tomorrow, about the post-Covid19 world order.
To understand better what is the point it’s mandatory to speak about Turkish protagonism in other theaters geopolitically important to Moscow: Bosnia, Ukraine, Southern Caucasus, -stan area.
Let’s start from Bosnia. The country is made up by two federal entities which are increasingly in conflict and it is no surprise that while Russia, China and Serbia are sending aid to Bosnia’s Serbian Republic; Turkey is “invading” the Bosnian part with tons of aid. We are witnessing to the ground-breaking demarcation of the last remnant of Yugoslavia.
Turkey’s mask diplomacy in the Balkans is one of the many expressions of the ideological body that has been driving Ankara’s foreign agenda since the USSR collapse and which isn’t merely based on neo-ottoman ambitions, as people usually tend to think, but it’s a complex combination of pan-Turkism, Islamic nationalism and turanism.
The latter is an ideology born out of the minds of Hungarian and Turkish thinkers in the late 19th century to stop the spreading of pan-Slavism and pan-Germanism from endangering the Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Turanism, in short, states that today’s European-based Asian peoples, like Hungarians, Turkish, Tatars and Samis, are spiritually inter-connected with the “East”, their true homeland, that is Central Asia and the Siberian steppes, and accordingly should find a way to strengthen their partnership in coherence with their common ancestral past.
Turanism is the driving factor of Hungary’s Fidesz, whose foreign policy aspiring to bring the country “to the East” has effectively led to the establishment of strategic partnerships with Turkey, Japan and the -stan countries. Hungary and Turkey have joined the efforts in many fields: energy, culture, tourism, foreign policy, trade, and have even changed their university curricula to give more importance to the turanist school of thought.
Turanism has brought Hungary straight to Central Asia; recently the Orban government got to enter the Turkic Council with an observer status and soon is expected to request full membership.
The Turkic Council is one of the main geopolitical tools through which Ankara is promoting its foreign agenda in the post-soviet space and is trying to drive Russia and the -stan countries apart. Surprisingly, it’s having quite success – and the US is thankful.
The White House is fully aware of Ankara’s ever-growing protagonism in the -stan countries via the intense network based on pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic initiatives, organizations, entities, universities, NGOs, and lobbying groups, and the Trump administration is trying to take advantage of this revolutionary paradigm shift to lessen Russia’s influence in the region.
Mike Pompeo’s recent visit in the -stans has to be contextualized in this panorama of wider competition among Asia’s biggest players, with the US-Turkey axis on one side and the Russian-Chinese axis on the other side. It was Pompeo himself to show Trump’s ambitions: pressures over Tashkent not to join the Economic Eurasian Union and pressures over Nur-Sultan to join the pro-Uighur agenda.
The Turkish-American’s capabilities to influence Central Asian policies have so far been being widely and culpably underevaluated. First of all, let’s think of Uzbekistan‘s bothersome play for game with the Kremlin as regard to joining the EEU: after 4-year talks, last March the government announced it would join the organization as an observer member to understand whether the benefits exceed the risks or not.
But back in September 2019, when it was about to enter the Ankara-backed Turkic Council, the Uzbek government didn’t think twice: it sent the request for full membership.
And it precisely via the Turkic Council that Erdogan is seeking to expand his country’s influence in the region. Tons of aid have been already sent to any -stan, which are supporting Hungary as well in sign of turanist brotherhood, and the entity has played a pivotal role in managing the delivery of goods, gotting to receive praise from Ankara’s foreign ministry.
And then there’s Ukraine which asked officially medical aid and supplies to Turkey and has seen such request greenlighted on April 12th. Turkey has quickly become one of the country’s main strategic partners in the aftermath of Euromaidan and the relationship is more and more warm as Erdogan and Volodymyr Zelensky seem to agree on every relevant topic: regional security, legal status of Crimea, military affairs, trade, the Tatar question.
It mustn’t be underevaluated the fact that Turkey is working in coordination with the NATO to help most of the above-mentioned countries, indeed this is the latest self-proving evidence that Erdogan’s alleged double play with Vladimir Putin is supported and approved by the White House to get the Kremlin confused.
It looks like it worked: first the S400 deal and then the exchanges of fire in Syria, the pernicious infiltration of the post-soviet space and the promotion of separatism within Russia’s own borders.
The latter point is closely tied to what Erdogan’s adviser Mesut Hakki Casin said in the aftermath of Syria’s February crisis: “We have fought Russia 16 times in the past, and we will fight it again […] Russia will be shattered from inside ”.
The forthcoming appearance of Chechnya-style scenarios in Russia’s Turkic-speaking and Muslim-inhabited republics isn’t so unlikely since that Ankara-funded or -linked entities are spreading and and backing inter-ethnic polarization, religious radicalization and separatist sentiments from Tatarstan to Yakutia, from Tuva to Bashkiria.
Returning to the main point, the Kremlin should focus more efforts on the provision of aid in Serbia, Moldova, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia and -stan countries, because the future international order is being written right now, in these days of panic and anarchy, and the West is trying to take advantage of the pandemic via Turkey to expand its influence in Russia’s remaining spheres of influence
The ultimate goal, indeed, is Moscow’s complete encirclement and with Turkey’s help, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s dreams of seeing Russia falling apart in a Soviet-like dystopic scenario might become true. The time to act is now: a new strategy targeting the post-soviet space is needed.