Balkans split on Erdogan's response to protests

05/07/2013

The prime minister greeted the Balkans in a recent speech, but not everyone was flattered.

By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 05/07/13

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's response to the Gezi Park demonstrations has drawn mixed reactions in the Balkans. [AFP]

As Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced massive protests in cities across the country, people in several Balkan nations turned out to show their support for the prime minister.

In a pro-government rally organised by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan thanked his international supporters for their solidarity.

"May you shout so loudly that Sarajevo hears you," Erdogan told a crowd of supporters in Istanbul, according to a transcript on the AKP's website. "May you shout so loudly that those who are plotting against Turkey from their offices, studios and computers tremble in their boots."

Erdogan continued: "Is Skopje, Macdeonia here? Are Gostivar, Prizren and Pristina here? Are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo here? I send greetings from Istanbul to those who have taken to the streets for us in all parts of the world, to my brothers who have not spared us their prayers."

There is no shortage of Erdogan admirers in the Balkans. For others, however, the Turkish government's harsh response to the demonstrators was reminiscent of the region's authoritarian past.

Erdogan's speech and the intensity of the reactions demonstrated the growing connections between Turkey and the Balkans after a decade of aggressive outreach by the AKP, analysts and citizens said.

"BiH has historic relations with Turkey. We have been connected with bridges of friendship for centuries. Thanks to the [prime minister] of Turkey for putting emphasis on this fact once again," Sarajevo resident Osman Sejdinovic, 39, told SETimes.

Nesko Spasev, a 44-year-old driver from Macedonia, was also enthusiastic about Erdogan's speech.

"It is great honour to be saluted by such a leader, and I feel proudly. If my leader did something like he did for his people, I'd never go outside and blame a leader who ensured economic stability and prosperity for me," he told SETimes. "Erdogan knows that tradition and independence are the basis for success, and all leaders in the Balkans should learn that lesson from him."

Vladimir Ajzenhamer, an analyst at the Centre of Asia Studies at the Belgrade Faculty of Political Studies, attributed the positive response to strong people-to-people ties uniting Turkey and the Balkans. Many Balkan expatriates have found a better life in Turkey, while ethnic Turks in Balkan states have strong emotional ties to the Anatolian motherland, he said.

From Erdogan's perspective, invoking the Balkans was a way to deflect criticism of his party's foreign policy, added Ajzenhamer.

"By focusing on his popularity in Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Sarajevo, Erdogan sent a message to all his adversaries that despite the Syria debacle, his party, certainly, has strengthened the position of Turkey in the region," he told SETimes.

Kerem Oktem, a Turkey-born research fellow at the European Studies Centre at Oxford University, told SETimes that the pro-Erdogan demonstrations were a dividend of the AKP's aggressive outreach to Balkan nations.

"Over the last decade, the AKP government has been building up political and economic networks of support with political elites, particularly in the region's weak states like BiH, Macedonia and Albania. It is these networks of interest which have made possible the organisation of demonstrations of support for Erdogan," he said. "These groups now see their future in cooperation with Turkey, which has become synonymous with the Turkish prime minister."

But citizens of the Balkans were far from unanimous in praising Erdogan. Days after a pro-Erdogan meeting in the Albanian capital of Tirana, a group organised a demonstration at Tirana's Polytechnic University to show solidarity with the Turkish demonstrators. About 20 people turned out.

Selma Tokic, 33, a resident of Gradacac town in northern BiH, criticised Erdogan's human rights record.

"This is a disgrace. Erodgan's 'thank you' means that we are against democracy, secularism and human rights. This simply is not true," she told SETimes.

Maja Petrovi, 32, an architect from Belgrade, saw traces of former Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in the police crackdown on demonstrators in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

"We had a very similar situation during the 1990s, when Milosevic was attacking us with tear gas, water cannon and bats," she told SETimes. "It is natural that we are with these people in Taksim and the whole of Turkey. I'm ashamed of those who are showing happiness because someone who uses violence against his own people in the 21st century saluted them."

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The unrest in Turkish cities started on May 31st, when police raided a protest encampment against the government's plans to redevelop one of the last green spaces in downtown Istanbul. The demonstrations, which later became a sounding board for more general grievances against the AKP, spread across the country. The redevelopment plans were later scrapped, but the protests continue in smaller forms.

At least seven people have been killed in the turmoil, with nearly 8,000 suffering injuries. Erdogan has rejected criticism by human rights groups that the police response has been disproportionate. Instead, he has praised the police for their "heroism." Erdogan and other AKP officials have dismissed the demonstrations as a plot hatched by foreign provocateurs and media outlets.

Correspondents Bedrana Kaletovic in Sarajevo and Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul contributed to this report.

How do you feel about Erdogan's message to the Balkans? Share your reactions in the comments area.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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