Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Turkey-Fyrom axis

Below is an article by Ioannis Michaeletos, which I came across on, that draws our attention to how Turkey is trying to restore its hegemony in the Balkans and, in particular, how it is exploiting the anti-Greek hysteria in Fyrom to induce that country to enter its orbit.

The attempted satelization of FYROM by Turkey
Turkey’s geopolitical view of the the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, has become informed by 'neo-Ottoman policy', which is as an attempt by Turkey to re-establish as spheres of influence former provinces of the Ottoman empire.

Part of the neo-Ottoman project involves Turkey taking under its wing small countries like Fyrom.

The Turkish minority in Fyrom
There are around 80,000 ethnic Turks in Fyrom. They date their settlement back to the Ottoman era, when they were either transferred from Asia Minor or were locals converted to Islam, often forcibly. They are mostly concentrated in the areas of Vitola, Tetovo, Reshen and Sendar Zoupa.

In general, the Turkish community in Fyrom retains good relations with the rest of the Muslim minorities in the country that number up to a third of the population, approximately 800,000 people. It is estimated that in the next generation or so, the low birth rates of the Christian Orthodox population and the emigration of Skopjans to Western Europe will make the Muslims the majority in Fyrom, thus changing the political and social landscape, possibly in an irreversible manner.

The main political group that unites the Turkish minority is the Turkish Democratic Union. It publishes numerous newspapers and periodicals and has its own radio and television stations.

Moreover, there are about 60 Turkish state schools in Fyrom and a college in Tetovo. In addition, private institutions offer Turkish language and culture lessons – subsidised by Ankara – while the University of Skopje offers courses on Turkish studies.

Over the past few years, bilateral cultural agreements between Fyrom and Turkey have been signed, while Turkish university and state officials often visit the Ottoman-era monuments in the country and actively promote their maintenance through generous subsidies.

There are frequent public relations campaigns, joint seminars and conferences where Turkish institutions advertise the 'importance of the Ottoman legacy' in the country.

Also noteworthy is the Fetullah Gulen foundation, an all-powerful Islamic cultural and civic society apparatus in Turkey, which advertises itself as pursuing a unique form of 'Turkish Islam', and maintains language schools in Skopje, while Gulen himself has visited Fyrom and met local leaders.

The Turkish minority in Fyrom has a powerful presence in the political arena and its members serve in many branches of public life, one notable example being Srgan Kerim, a high-ranking diplomat who, for a term, was chairman of the UN general assembly.

There is also a well-developed nexus between the Turks in Fyrom and Istanbul that encompasses both cultural exchanges and, most importantly, commercial ties. It is estimated in Istanbul that 100,000 people claim descent from the Turkish minority in Fyrom, with a number having attained important positions in Turkey's diplomatic and military establishment.

In general, Turkey, due to its continuing conflicts with Greece, follows a policy of embracing any state that has differences with Athens. Moreover, Fyrom's geopolitical location between Albania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, provides an ideal foothold for Turkish political influence in the Balkan peninsula.

On 6 May 2008, the president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, visited Skopje in what was widely interpreted as an attempt to exploit Fyrom's disappointment at what it perceived was Greece’s veto, a month earlier, over Fyrom's attempt to join Nato.

During his four-day visit to Fyrom, Gul promised wide-ranging economic co-operation with Skopje and Turkey's strong support for Fyrom's Nato aspirations. Nationalistic circles in Fyrom played along with Gul and portrayed Turkey as a regional benefactor.

The international link
Fyrom-Turkey co-operation also extends to the international level. The so-called United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD), which is based in the USA, received $300,000 last year from the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), which is guided by the Turkish diplomatic corps in the USA and whose aim is to support and pursue Turkish state policy in the USA.

The money from the TCA to the UMD was given to allow the UMD to establish an office in New York, from which, it seems, Turkey expects the UMD to lobby against Greece and Greek interests.

The TCA's president, G. Lincoln McCurdy, was from 1998 to 2004 the general director of the American-Turkish Council (ATC) in Washington, the foremost Turkish lobbying group in the USA. He also served in the US consulate in Istanbul from 1980-1984 and has, since then, maintained strong links with Turkey. During McCurdy's presidency of the TCA, the organisation's legal counsellor was Gunay Evinch, who is also the legal counsel for the Turkish embassy in Washington and attorney for the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.

Evinch is the main link between the TCA and the UMD. On 20 July 2008, he was spotted at a demonstration in the USA holding a placard reading 'Greek troops have occupied Macedonia'.

Evinch, also known to have strong links with Turkish Cypriot political circles, has stated in interviews in the Turkish media that 'Turks and Macedonians [sic] are best friends' and has expressed thanks to the Skopjans for 'the support they give to Turkey'.

Crime connections
In Vienna, immigrant Skopjans involved in heroin smuggling include in their ranks Turkish minority members, but not Albanians from Fyrom, who operate independently and often antagonistically with their Fyromian compatriots.

As far as the heroin trade is concerned, its main Balkan transit route is Istanbul, Skopje and then on to Western Europe. In Fyrom, Turks from Turkey have not only established themselves, in co-operation with the Kosovo mafia, as significant drug barons, but they have also made Fyrom a useful base from which, in co-operation with local criminal groups, they are able to conduct their human trafficking and illegal immigration activities.

The main aim of Turkey in its relations with Fyrom is to gain political influence. Since Ankara follows the same policy in Albania, Bosnia and, most recently, in Sanjak in Serbia, one can conclude that Fyrom is for the Turks a crucial part of its plan to establish a Turkish axis in the Balkans. As part of this strategy, the Muslim minorities in Greece, Bulgaria and Moldavia are also being courted by Turkey.

It should be noted that while Turkey is motivated by this grand vision it has for the Balkans, the Fyromians don't necessarily share this vision since it is mostly interested in EU and NATO accession.

In any case, the burgeoning relationship between Turkey and Fyrom has attracted the attention of Fyrom's neighbours, a development that will surely result in counter-initiatives by Athens, Sofia, Tirana and Belgrade.