While largely defeated in Turkey, the Fethullah Terror Organisation’s presence throughout the Balkans remains worrying not only for Turkey but for all responsible states with close ties to the region. Both the state of Albania and disputed Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija have become notorious for housing loyalists of the terror group led by the US based extremist Fethullah Gulen, a man wanted on charges of terrorism in Turkey. While six alleged FETO members were recently extradited to Turkey by security officials in Kosovo and Metohija, the premier of the Pristina authority, Ramush Haradinaj fired interior minister Flamur Sefaj and intelligence chief Driton Gashi over their apparent cooperation with Ankara regarding the extradition of six FETO members. Now, the Kosovar Deputy Foreign Minister, Gjergj Dedaj is under fire after slamming both Turkey and Serbia as “dirty invaders”. This inflammatory statement has lead to minority factions in the Pristina parliament to call for Dedaj’s immediate resignation while officials in both Belgrade and Ankara have condemned the provocation. While it is not clear if Dadaj has any links to FETO, his Turkphobic hatred is consistent with the anti-Ankara propaganda that the terror group continues to promulgate throughout the Balkans.
While Turkey and Serbia, like Russia and Turkey were historic rivals, the reality in the 21st century has defied the past in both respects. In October of 2017, Turkey’s President Erdogan received a warm welcome in Belgrade, while he and other Turkish officials continue to slam the presence of the FETO in Albania and Kosovo and Metohija. While Turkey was among the first nations to recognise Kosovo and Metohija as the state of Kosovo in 2008, Turkey’s relationship with both the US and Albanian factions in the western Balkans has deteriorated since. The presence of FETO in the region with historic Turkish connections is one of the common threads which links the deterioration for both Ankara-Washington relations and Ankara-Tirana/Pristina relations.
Albania has for years rebuffed Ankara’s requests to extradite known FETO members, while the west Balkan state has also refused to do anything to clamp down on FETO activity on its soil. In this sense, just as a wealthy al-Qaeda once effectively paid the former Afghan regime to rent its soil as a base of operations, so too is Gulen’s terrorist organisation doing the same with Albania, one of Europe’s most impoverished states. This has been made all the more apparent when Albania’s Defence Minister Olta Xhacka recently named Turkey as a potential threat to Albania in her plea to have the US build a base on Albanian soil. At the moment, the US has build a large illegal base next door in occupied Kosovo and Metohija and now Tirana wants such a base on its own legal soil.
While President Erdogan’s relations with the other Muslim majority nation of the Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains positive, his relations with Muslim majority Albania continue to deteriorate, primarily due to the FETO issue. As FETO is held responsible for an attempted coup against the Turkish sate in 2016, this is no small matter. That being said, as FETO activity creeps into Bosnia as well, Turkey may soon find that its most reliable Balkan colleague might be Orthodox Serbia – in many respects it already is.
While Ankara’s relations with its traditional Muslim partners in the Balkans is in a precarious position thanks to FETO feeding an atmosphere of petrochemical, obscurantist ultra-nationalism among cultures with historically fraternal relations to Turkey, Serbia’s leadership has praised Turkey for its stabilising role in the region.
In May of this year Serbian President Alexander Vucic met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials in Ankara. The meetings which were characterised as positive by both sides are aimed at improving both economic and security ties.
After paying a visit to pay respects at Anıtkabir, the mausoleum to modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Vucic met with Turkey’s Parliamentary speaker Ismail Kahraman and other high-level politicians in Ankara. At this meeting Vucic told his Turkish hosts,
“We have narrowed the distance in relations between our countries via Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts and display of policy of conciliation, we have strengthened and built friendship bridges”.
Speaker Kahraman reponded by saying,
“We truly have a friendship between us”.
Later during the same visit, President Vicic meet with President Erdogan where the two discussed increasing bilateral trade, investment opportunities and security cooperation. The Turkish President remarked that trade between the two countries has exceeded the $1 billion threshold, but that Ankara intends to increase trade to $5 billion in the near future. Vucic then thanked Erdogan for Turkish investment throughout all corners of Serbia, stating,
“No investors were interested in small cities in Serbia. Only Turkish investors have come to invest in our small cities, and after President Erdogan’s visit (in 2017), these cities have developed economically even more”.
But while Serbia and Turkey, two countries whose protracted bids to join the EU have led both to look for new, more dynamic economic opportunities outside the Franco-German dominated bloc, on the issue of security there are far more pressing issues that divide Serbia and Turkey on the one side from both the EU and the United States on the other, in spite of Turkey’s strained membership of NATO.
For Serbia, a country that has for decades suffered at the hands of radical Albanian terrorist groups like the KLA, Belgrade and Ankara now have a common cause in putting an end to lawlessness and terrorism in the western Balkans. Furthermore, with Macedonia (aka FYROM…aka Northern Macedonia) on the brink of a new political crisis, Serbia is all too aware that Macedonia’s radicalised Albanian citizens, many of whom also have links with FETO could pour into Serbia in attempts to agitate for separatism in parts of Serbia that are home to an ethnic Albanian minority.
The fact that Turkey and Serbia have a common terrorist enemy that operates illegally in Serbian territory and with the de-facto approval of Albanian authorities, has given rise to a reality where Serbia and Turkey are two stable regional states with a common de-stabilising non-state enemy which is clearly acting as a proxy force of US power in the region. Because of this, it has become only natural for the two to coordinate security measures. To this end, Ankara and Belgrade will likely begin to enhance their cooperation on security measures with more intensity as time goes on. Against this background it is not surprising to see that Vucic told Erdogan the following during their bilateral meeting,
“I would like to thank President Erdogan for stabilising the Balkans”.
Erdogan then lashed out at western countries for their destabilising role in the region saying,
“The west cannot really bear Turkey’s stance, particularly in the Balkans, as well as steps, initiatives, efforts Turkey takes in the region. Whether it bears it or not, we are intensively doing whatever we can with TIKA [Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency] in the west, in the Balkans. We are especially displaying all our efforts through the restoration and construction of historical artifacts. We will continue to do so thereafter”.
In spite of a history of confrontation, modern Turkey and modern Serbia are waking up to the realities of the 21st century where the interests of both countries are linked due to both geography and broader geopolitical economic realities. At the same time, both Ankara and Belgrade have realised that their common enemy is not one-another, but those who seek to inflect the presence of dangerous terror groups like FETO on the west Balkans in order to sow discord among the few stable states of the region. As one of the long-time rulers of the Balkans, the Turkish government clearly displays a sense of duty to maintain law and order in the region while at the same time the US and its closest partners are attempting to use the Balkans as a volatile platform from which to launch dangerous provocations against Turkey.
The latest outburst from a high ranking Pristina politician who labelled both Serbia and Turkey as mutual enemies of an ethnic Albanian people proves that whether or not the hateful statement was directly linked to FETO, it is part of the wider FETO campaign aimed at destabilising the security of both the Turkish and Serbian states in spite of the fact that both have a clear role to play in stabilising areas of the Balkans prone to terrorism and political instability.