15 Dec 2010 / 08:45

Ottoman past haunts Turkey's Balkan image

Marcus Tanner
Ohrid, Macedonia

Ankara must be careful projecting itself as a player in a region where the word “Turk” still carries a good deal of historical baggage.

In the lakeside town of Ohrid, in Macedonia, the Byzantine-style frescoes in the ancient cathedral church of St Sophia flicker mysteriously in the soft light of glowing candles.

To Macedonians, St Sophia is one of the country’s artistic and religious treasures – proof of their antiquity as a nation and of the high civilisation they had created at least a millennium ago.

Exquisite as they are, the frescoes have not survived the long march of the centuries without cost. Almost each and every haloed saint or archangel has been mercilessly hacked away at, particular attention being paid to gouging out the saints’ eyes.

This vandalism of St Sophia was not, of course, the work of some giant woodpecker but of the Balkans’ Ottoman Muslim invaders, whose first targets were usually Christian places of worship.

St Sophia got off lightly. Countless other churches in the Balkans were flattened to the ground. What saved this church was its conversion into a mosque. The savaged frescoes were whitewashed over, and forgotten. It was only after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in Europe in 1912, when the building again became a church, that the frescoes were uncovered.

Historic foe

The trials and tribulations of St Sophia inform the continuing ambivalence and suspicion with which many people in the Balkans still regard the Ottoman Empire’s successor state, Turkey.

While Western countries, above all the US, laud Turkey as a force for stability, among Balkan Christians the Turks remain a historic foe, responsible for crushing their medieval kingdoms into the dust in the 15th century and holding them in subjection for the next four centuries.

Where the local population embraced the Islamic faith of their conquerors, as they did in most of Albania, much of Bosnia and in parts of Serbia and Bulgaria, feelings are more muted and nuanced. But among other communities, resentment of “Turks”, defined as almost any Muslim, remains a raw, easily activated, force.

It was a real factor among the Bosnian Serb soldiers who rolled across the former Yugoslav republic in 1992, blowing up mosques and killing Muslims as they went. Asked to explain their brutal treatment of their fellow countrymen, many responded that the Bosnian Muslims were, in fact, “Turks”, who thus deserved no mercy.

Some quoted lines from the celebrated 19th-century Montenegrin poet and prince-bishop, Njegos, whose famous epic poem, The Mountain Wreath, celebrates the slaughter of Slav Muslims as a cleansing, holy deed. As the US author Michael Sells wrote in 1995, by moving the conflict between Muslims and Christian Serbs “into a cosmic duality of good and evil, Njegos placed Slavic Muslims in a permanent state of otherness.”

‘Turk traitors’

Serbs are not the only Balkan people, historically, to regard Turks and their legacy - ethnic Turkish or Slav Muslim minorities - as “others”, or even as traitors. In the late 1980s, Bulgaria’s communist regime drove out several hundred thousand members of the Turkish minority, giving them the Kafkaesque choice of taking up “Bulgarian”, i.e. Christian, names, or leaving.

In Macedonia today, meanwhile, the nationalist government is busy sprinkling the capital, Skopje, with monuments to Slavic Christian saints: the unsubtle message being sent is that both the city and the country belong ultimately to the Slavic Christian majority, not the Albanian Muslim minority.

If anything, a sentiment in the Balkans that national identity remains defined by conscious opposition to Islam appears to be growing, especially among Serbs, Macedonians and Greeks, all of whom either have large Muslim minorities or – in Greece’s case – live next door to Turkey.

All these countries have witnessed powerful revivals of Orthodox Christianity, even if only as a badge of identity, made manifest by the erection of imposing new cathedrals and monasteries.

These monuments, whether it is the cross towering over Skopje, or the huge St Sava cathedral towering over Belgrade, are symbolic in intention. Their message is that this is Orthodox Christian land.

The strength of this sentiment, which goes well beyond that small section of society that is actively religious, means that any attempt by Muslim Turkey to act as a key “player” in the Balkans is fraught with a degree of risk.

As small cash-strapped economies, the Balkan states are interested in the potential of Turkish investment in such non-contentious fields as banking, supermarkets and road construction.

Turkey also has a more or less free hand to assert itself in other fields. Most Christian countries in the Balkans do not object to a discrete assertion of Turkish influence among their Muslim minorities, seeing Turkey’s brand of Islam as more responsible, moderate and European than the wilder strains of Islam coming in from the Middle East.

Nor does Turkey encounter much of a problem, increasing its stake among the mainly Muslim Albanians.

In Albania proper, the historic threat, since independence, has come from its immediate neighbours: Yugoslavia, which nearly gobbled the country up in the late 1940s; Italy, which occupied the country in 1939; and Greece, where nationalists still cast covetous eyes on southern Albania. Turkey is far away, and, in Tirana’s eyes, a useful counterweight to Italian and Greek penetration.

Ankara will ‘come unstuck’?

But Turkish attempts to act like a Balkan player are liable to come unstuck elsewhere, especially when Ankara tries to mediate between parties in the region and when one party is Muslim and the other not.

However well meaning Turkey’s initiatives, in such situations they are liable to be portrayed as imperialistic and as reviving unwelcome historical memories.

In Bosnia, in particular, Turkey, perhaps inevitably, is seen as the champion of the local Muslims and as the enemy of the Bosnian Serbs. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serbs’ pugnacious leader, has made real political capital out of taking on Turkey’s real or imagined agenda in Bosnia.

Lambasting Serbia’s willingness to let Turkey mediate between Belgrade and Sarajevo earlier this year, resulting in both countries signing a declaration in Istanbul, Dodik in September announced that Turkey had “a hidden goal – to create Bosnia to suit the Bosniaks”.

As Turkey’s self-confidence grows - but as its Muslim identity becomes more pronounced, as it has done in recent years - Ankara may find its influence has reached natural limits in a region where memories of the Ottoman Empire remain - at least in some quarters - bitter and unappeasable.


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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Ottoman past haunts Turkey's Balkan image

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Ankara must be careful projecting itself as a player in a region where the word “Turk” still carries a good deal of historical baggage.

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