How ‘Sultan Erdogan’ Rallied the Faithful in Sarajevo

Alexander Clapp

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rally in Sarajevo on Sunday, May 20 coincided with the first week of Ramadan. On the Friday before the event, the mood of the city was subdued, almost dead. There were no posters heralding his arrival. My hotel was all but empty.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his election campaign rally in Sarajevo. Photo: Anadolu

Apart from the occasional reference overheard in a cafe or on the street, one might have been forgiven for not knowing that Erdogan was scheduled to kick off his Turkish presidential re-election campaign in the Bosnian capital, 1,500 kilometres from the corridors of power in Ankara where he had ruled Turkey for the past 16 years.

There was certainly little sign of the pro-Erdogan excitement that would help re-elect him as Turkish president a month later, helped by a solid chunk of more than 3 million diaspora votes.

But on Saturday, the day before the rally in Sarajevo, that changed dramatically. By late morning, the city’s old Ottoman market was crammed with tens of thousands of visitors wearing red flags as capes. Makeshift stands on the street had sprung up out of nowhere, hawking crescent emblems and scarves bearing Erdogan's profile.

Lines of Turks with luggage snaked out of the lobbies of the major downtown hotels. I was told by one vendor that the Turkish state had not only paid for many of the visitors' rooms but had also arranged the fleets of buses that funnelled them into Sarajevo from various corners of the Balkans.

Walking to the Olympic Arena on Sunday, it was hard not to feel that the Ottoman Empire, broken up exactly a century ago, was being pieced back together in some ceremonial way.

Contingents of Turks from Skopje could be seen meeting their lost brothers from the Sandzak region straddling the Serbian-Montenegrin border. Those from Kosovo mingled with those from Thrace in northeastern Greece. One could tell who came from where by placards on their coach buses – and also, I suspect, their various regional dialects.

The arena itself was adorned with massive portraits of Erdogan and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic. Small flags had been put on every seat, to be waved when Erdogan entered the stage. He arrived roughly two hours after the arena filled up; during the wait, loudspeakers blasted heavily percussive songs in his honour.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan! Ba-boom! Ba-boom!

Tall and gaunt, in person Erdogan looks older than he does in photographs or on TV. He ambled around the stage slowly, moved his hands deliberately; his demeanour was almost grandfatherly. The effect was to make his voice all the more surprisingly stentorian and explosive during the more emotional swings of his speech; at one point he almost appeared to be frothing.

From outside the arena, loudspeakers boomed his words down Alipasina Boulevard; they echoed off the hills and across the city. Exhorting the Turks before him to "show their strength to the whole world" – by which he presumably meant that they cast votes for his ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP – he was met with roars of approval.

Not just a showcasing of Turkish nationalism, the rally also had all the trappings of an emerging personality cult. This was Erdogan's show; more than 20,000 Turks had spent hours on buses, many travelling overnight, to hear his words in person.

When, during a lull in the speech, an elderly Turk not far from me shouted, "Sultan Erdogan!" cries of jubilation rippled across the arena. And yet one couldn't help but also notice a certain nervous laughter as well – recognition, perhaps, that the man on the stage had long been Sultan Erdogan in all but name.

The speech itself was designed to provoke – its point being, in effect, that Turkey has always been a European power, rightfully deserves a place in the European community, and that any derailing of European-Turkish relations was the fault of certain European nations that had recently turned “un-democratic” and, indeed, “fascist”.

I left the arena as Erdogan ended his remarks, encouraging all those who could to make for the polls on June 24. By the next morning the president – and all those Turks who had journeyed to Sarajevo to see him – were gone. Sarajevo was quiet once more.

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Alexander Clapp

Alexander Clapp is an Athens-based freelance journalist whose articles about the Balkans have appeared in The American InterestThe New Left Review and The London Review of Books.