Yesterday, February 19, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan began a two-day official visit to Russia. The trip comes on the heels of Ankara’s recognition of Kosova’s declaration of independence, made the previous day.
Underlining the complexities of Turkish-Russian relations, Babacan released a statement noting that Ankara welcomed the elements included in Kosova’s independence declaration, but added that Turkey also values its regional and mutual relations with Serbia, which strongly opposes Kosova’s independence (Hurriyet, February 19). If Ankara’s recognition of Kosova has strained its relationship with Serbia, the corresponding impact of the decision on Turkey’s relations with Moscow is less clear. Russia is both an important trading partner for Turkey and Serbia’s staunchest ally in the UN Security Council.
Babacan’s pre-departure statement stressed the possibility that Kosova’s action might actually reduce tensions in the Balkan region, noting, “Securing peace and stability in the Balkans is one of Turkey’s foreign policy priorities. Turkey believes it is important that the understanding of lasting peace prevails in the Balkans, which has suffered immensely in recent years. Turkey hopes that the independence of Kosova will present an opportunity for the enhancement of stability and confidence among the countries in the region” (NTV, February 19).
Turkey’s decision to recognize Kosova stems from a mixture of pragmatism and self-interest. Kosova represents both an opportunity and threat to Turkish policy. On the positive side, Ankara might be able to use the issue as leverage to gain recognition for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). This self-declared state was established after the Turkish military invasion in 1974, but so far the only significant international actor to recognize it is Turkey. On the negative side, if Kosova’s action triggers a burst of unilateral declarations of independence by national minorities clamoring for freedom across Europe or the world, Turkey’s Kurdish minority might join the bandwagon and begin agitating for similar action. Ankara cannot have overlooked the fact that a number of countries with significant minorities, including Spain, Kazakhstan, Russia, and China, have all declined to recognize Kosova’s independence for this very reason.
Turkey’s relationship with Kosova is unique, as the Ottoman Empire ruled the region from the 14th century until the early 20th century, when it lost the territory during the Second Balkan War. During the centuries of domination by the Ottoman Empire, much of the indigenous population converted to Islam. At the same time, Kosova remains the site of many locations revered by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
In 1999 Turkish troops returned to Kosova as part of the NATO-led Kosova Force (KFOR). Turkey now commands KFOR’s Multinational Task Force South (MNTF-S), stationed in southern Kosova and headquartered in Prizen. MNTS-S was established in May 2006 and has been under the command of Turkish Brigadier General Ugur Tarcin since May 29, 2007. General Tarcin also oversees KFOR contingents from Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, and Switzerland. Of the 15,900 KFOR troops in Kosova. MNTF has 4,000 troops, including 940 from Turkey (www.nato.int/issues/Kosova/index.html).
Like Kosova, the issue of the TRNC has similarly split international opinion. Both the United States and European Union have denied that Kosova’s declaration could serve as a model or precedent for the TRNC. On February 14, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his final annual press conference, drew attention to Kosova’s then-imminent declaration of independence and assertions by European powers that Kosova is a “special case” in seeking freedom. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but Northern Cyprus has been a de facto independent republic for 40 years,” he argued. “Why then don’t you recognize it? Aren’t you, Europeans, ashamed of applying double standards in solving identical problems in different parts of the world?” (RIA-Novosti, February 14).
The potential impact of Kosova’s actions could also affect Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, as Armenians could use Kosova’s actions to urge independence for Karabakh.
While Abkhazia, Karabakh, Transnistria, and South Ossetia monitor Kosova’s independence drive, Ankara must remember that its Kurdish population is also watching with great interest.