14 Feb 2011 / 10:10

Macedonia-Turkey: The Ties That Bind

Darko Duridanski (link)
Skopje and Bitola

While Ankara maintains close diplomatic relations with Skopje, cemented by their shared political enmity toward Greece, Turkey must step carefully when it comes to inter-ethnic disputes within ‘the heart of the Balkans’.

Standing outside the Ottoman army barracks building, now the National Museum, in Macedonia’s second city Bitola, it is not immediately obvious the site is a shrine for Turks.

Yet almost every weekend, a bus laden with Turkish tourists pulls up outside the museum.

Visiting the nineteenth century barracks where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the founding father of modern Turkey – lived and studied is something of a pilgrimage for the several thousand Turkish tourists who, according to the museum, journey here each year.

"When they see the building and read the sign in front of it -The founder and first president of modern Turkey Ataturk finished military high school in this building - they are stunned.

"But when they enter the room, they are astonished. They see the wax figure of Ataturk and they are so excited that some of them begin to cry,” says Senol Memis, a Macedonian of Turkish ethnicity and president of the Association for Macedonian-Turkish Friendship based in Bitola.

The story of Ataturk is the story of the Macedonian-Turkish friendship that endures to this day. Ankara has remained Skopje’s biggest ally since Macedonia declared independence from the former Yugoslav republic in 1991.

The two nations have been further united by their shared political enmity with Greece over disputed territory, history and the use of the name Macedonia.

Macedonia came under direct Ottoman rule for more than 500 years, until the Ottomans retreated from Europe following the 1912 Balkan war. Ataturk, who was born in Thessaloniki (now in Greece) in 1881, attended military school in Bitola from 1896 to 1899.

His father was born in the village of Kodzadzik, in western Macedonia. Ataturk went on to become an army officer during World War One and president of the newly-founded Republic of Turkey in 1924.

‘Unreserved Friendship’
"The emotions Turks feel for Macedonia are specific. Because of the common history, we [Macedonians] have always been treated by the Turks as one of the smallest, and most beloved, children,” says Stevo Pendarovski, foreign affairs professor at the University American College in Skopje.

"Even if you talk to people that have been to Turkey only on holidays, they will tell you that Turks treat Macedonians with unreserved friendship", he adds.

Ataturk, who died in 1938 in Istanbul, is not the only key Turkish figure to have close ties to Macedonia. Dozens of leading Turkish politicians and army generals, past and present, have Macedonian roots.

Macedonia’s Turkish Minority

• 77,000 ethnic Turks live in Macedonia*

• Ethnic Turks have the right to primary education in the Turkish language

• There are two political parties representing the Turkish minority

• The Turkish agency TIKA is supporting the reconstruction of Ottoman monuments, including mosques, hamams (Turkish baths) and old bazaars

• Turkish soap operas are hugely popular among Macedonian TV viewers prompting, some say, a rise in the number of Macedonians learning the Turkish language

• Theatre productions are regularly staged in the Turkish language

* Source:  Macedonian 2001 census

Timeline: Turkey and Macedonia(link)

While official figures are hard to come by as questions regarding Macedonian roots were not included in the latest Turkish census, it is estimated as many as six million people living in Turkey today have Macedonian ancestry.

Many migrated immediately after the 1912 and 1913 Balkan wars and during the 1950s, when thousands of Muslims opted to leave communist Macedonia behind and moved to Turkey for greater religious freedom and economic reasons.

The biggest concentration of Macedonian Turks can be found in the cities of Manisa and Izmir in western Turkey. Many still speak Macedonian and strive to keep their ancestral traditions alive by organising myriad cultural and sporting events in Turkey and Macedonia.

There are numerous Turkish-Macedonian associations, and dozens of groups on Facebook dedicated to furthering and supporting Macedonian-Turk friendship and ties.

In recent times, Turkey earned the unswerving loyalty of many Macedonians after Ankara became the second country – Bulgaria was first - to publicly support Skopje’s declaration of independence and use of the name Macedonia in 1991.

It has also cemented ties between the two nations – particularly with regard to their complicated relations with Greece.

Dispute with Greece

Skopje’s use of the name Macedonia has angered her southern neighbour, as many Greeks believe the name is purely Hellenic. Greece’s refusal to recognise Macedonia also reflects Greek fears that Skopje wishes to reclaim land that lies in Greek territory.

In 1993, Macedonia was forced to accept the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM, in order to become a member of the UN.

The already highly-charged name issue erupted once again in 2007, when Skopje changed the name of its international airport to the Alexander the Great airport – prompting Athens to oppose Macedonian membership of NATO.

Turkey, who is the second biggest supporter of Macedonia’s NATO membership bid after the US, is the only NATO member to insist that every alliance document carries a footnote on the use of the name FYROM. The footnote reads: Turkey recognises Macedonia under its constitutional name.

In March 2010, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, met his Macedonian counterpart, Antonio Milososki, in Skopje and fully expressed his nations support in one sentence: "The citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, wherever they are in the world can, if they need help, call the embassies of Turkey. They will get help, as they are Turkish citizens."

Gjuner Ismail, a Macedonian ethnic Turk and former culture minister in the 1990s Macedonian government, says Turkey has always helped and supported Macedonia because it is in Ankara’s own interests to do so.

"Turkey has supported Macedonia, and I stress this, continuously and unconditionally. Turkey has never set any conditions on its support for Macedonia", says Ismail, who is now president of the Macedonian think-tank FORUM - Center for Strategic Research and Documentation.

He says that support was vital back in 1995, when Greece imposed an economic blockade in response to Skopje’s use of the name Macedonia.

While Greece closed its border with Macedonia, Skopje could not import from neighbouring Serbia as Belgrade was under UN-imposed sanctions. Queues several kilometres long were not an uncommon sight at gas stations during this time.

The long lines were slightly shortened after Turkey began sending shipments of oil to Macedonia via Bulgaria.

Turkey’s Path to Europe

1959:  Turkey applies for associate membership of the European Economic Community

1963: Turkey signs association agreement with the EEC

1987: Turkey submits formal application for membership of the European Community

1989: The European Commission confirms Ankara’s eventual membership, but defers the decision until economic and political hurdles, including poor relations with Greece and the Cyprus conflict, are resolved

1999: Turkey is recognised as an EU membership candidate on equal footing with other potential member states

2005: The European Commission recommends negotiations for Turkish accession begin, but talks remain stalled over domestic and international issues, including the Cyprus dispute. Austria and France oppose Turkey’s full membership of the EU

Macedonia’s Path to Europe

2001: Macedonia signs an association and stabilisation agreement with the EU

2004: Macedonia applies for EU membership

2005: Macedonia is officially granted EU candidate status by the European Council

2009: The EU council of ministers recommends Macedonia begin accession talks but does not set a date to start negotiations because of the unresolved dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia

Ismail recounts other examples of Turkish support for Macedonia in difficult times: "When we [Macedonia] were supposed to be accepted as a member of UNESCO, the Macedonian delegation of five people was scheduled to speak on the sixteenth day of the conference.

“That was impossible for us, because it was too expensive at that time to stay for three weeks in Paris".

“But then the chief of the Turkish delegation, who was supposed to talk on the fourth day, stepped back and freed the place for Macedonia,” he recalls, adding that many Macedonian diplomatic victories have been pushed for by Turkey.

Davutoglu again demonstrated this support during his visit to Skopje in March 2010: “Turkey gives great attention to the political stability and prosperity of Macedonia because it is the heart of the Balkans.

“That is why Ankara was one of the first countries that recognised Macedonia under its constitutional name. I believe that the path of Macedonia towards the EU should be opened and the Turkish support for NATO membership for Macedonia will continue".

“We will always be on the same side as Macedonia because its success is also our success."

However, some analysts believe Macedonian politicians rely too heavily upon, and too readily presume, Turkish support.

"Macedonian politicians are not reacting honestly and correctly to Turkish support. The political elites know that Macedonia is part of a bigger picture, a bigger interest, and that is why they behave this way", Ismail says.

"Macedonian politicians draw this simple conclusion - Turkey is helping us because we are an enemy of their enemy [Greece] and that is why their support will stay", he adds.

Warm relations, poor economic ties

Yet despite extraordinarily warm political relations, trade between the two countries remains poorly developed.

Professor Pendarovski believes Macedonian politicians themselves have stymied potentially lucrative economic ties between Ankara and Skopje.

He says Macedonia’s political leadership has shown no interest in granting favourable conditions to Turkish investors, relying instead on Turkish goodwill and historical ties.

"Emotions are great, but in business you have to earn something”, warns Pendarovski.

"That is why there is not a single Turkish politician who will not use the diplomatic phrase ‘we have great relations, but we also have unused potential in the economy’. After that, he will explain that they are not seeking ‘special conditions’ but simply want the same conditions given to Greek investors.”

The Greeks, who are widely regarded as Macedonia’s political enemy because of the name dispute, are, ironically, Skopje’s biggest investor and business partner, according to the National Bank of the Republic of Macedonia.

At the end of the nineties and into the early 2000s, Greek investors and Greek state companies were allowed to buy strategically important companies, with attractive concessions.

For example, in 1999, the Greek state firm Hellenic Petroleum bought a Macedonian oil refinery near Skopje. As part of the deal, the Macedonian government undertook an obligation to repurchase 500,000 tonnes of petroleum jelly over the next 20 years.

Greek investment in Macedonia for 2009 totalled €380m, far more than the €49m invested by Turkey the same year, according to the bank.

Trade figures tell the same story, with the Skopje-based Macedonian Institute for Statistics valuing trade volume between Turkey and Macedonia at €210m during 2010. Trade between Athens and Skopje far outstripped that, valued at €484m for the same year.

Along with favourable concessions, Sam Vaknin, an economist and former economics adviser to the Macedonian government, believes Greece is the bigger investor in Macedonia because Greek companies "invested in Macedonia as part of a larger, long-term, and government-supported plan to invest in the Balkans, and thus increase Greek influence".

"The Turks at that time [the end of the 1990s into the early 2000s] considered Macedonia as not very interesting and a very inhospitable business environment. The Turks are the ones who decided to invest very little here. The investors are afraid, first and foremost, of inefficiency, corruption and favouritism,” he says.

Vaknin thinks that the Macedonian market was not on Turkey's radar until 2005, when Vlado Buckovski became prime minister and started working hard to attract more Turkish investors, an initiative that has been continued by Nikola Gruevski, the current prime minister.

Government attempts to court Turkish investors have begun to yield fruit in the past couple of years. In 2008, the Turkish company TAV won the tender to operate Macedonia’s two airports - Skopje and Ohrid - for 20 years and build another in the town of Stip in 10 years.

The deal, which stipulates TAV must refurbish the airports, build new, longer runways and cargo buildings is worth around €200 million over two years.

Simmering Ethnic Tensions

While Ankara’s long-standing political support for and burgeoning economic relationship with Skopje is beyond question, some believe Turkey should use its influence to help defuse ethnic and religious tensions within Macedonia.

Ankara would be, the reasoning goes, a useful buffer should inter-ethnic tensions again boil over into violent unrest.

Relations between Macedonia’s different ethnic communities have been tense for years, particularly since the ethnic Albanian minority have demanded more rights. This boiled over into a six-month military conflict in 2001, resolved by the Ohrid Peace Agreement of the same year. Since then, the threat of new conflicts has never truly disappeared.

However, it appears there are limits to Turkish influence in Macedonia after all. One former government adviser, who asked not to be identified, warns not all Macedonian citizens would regard Turkey as a welcome influence.

In particular, Macedonia’s 500,000 ethnic Albanians fear Turkish dominance in the country could come at the price of their identity – despite shared religious and cultural heritage.

"Turkey… if it wants to help in future, has to be very careful… the problem is that at the moment they are more accepted by the Macedonians than the ethnic Albanians. And to be a buffer, you have to have equal legitimacy among ethnic groups,” cautions the former government adviser.

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence's Alumni Initiative, established and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.

Fellow Bio


Darko Duridanski

Darko Duridanski was born in 1982 in Skopje, Macedonia. He is currently working in the foreign politics department of the Macedonian daily, Vest


Turkey and the Balkans

The re-emergence of Turkey as a growing economic, political and religious power in the Balkans is the subject of the latest Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative project.

Meet the Journalists


Altin Raxhimi

Altin Raxhimi from Tirana, Albania, is an experienced journalist currently working freelance from Albania for a host of English-language publications, including BIRN, www.reportingproject.net, Inter-Press Service and The Chicago Tribune


Lavdim Hamidi

Lavdim Hamidi was born in 1982 in Trnovac and is currently living and working in Kosovo. He is an experienced economics reporter and works for the daily newspaper, Zeri


Gjergj Erebara

Gjergj Erebara was born in 1979 in Tirana, Albania. He has been specialized in economic reporting and currently works as journalist in “Shqip” daily published in Tirana and BalkanInsight.com publication.


Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University


Yana Buhrer Tavanier

Yana Buhrer Tavanier is a freelance journalist and a human rights activist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Previously she was editor of weekly Capital, and worked as a journalist for Tema magazine and daily Dnevnik.

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