The question of the influence of Muslim countries on the Western Balkans *

By Admir Mulaosmanović

The issue of Turkish influence is linked together with the influence of Middle Eastern theocracies. Actually so-called 'silent Islamization' is seen as a problem in the areas where Muslims are the majority. Turkey is considered as a leader and a country that can significantly disrupt the EU's strategy. Dr. Michael Taylor, from questioned and by affair revealed Cambridge Analytica, gave certain prediction and described Turkish approach as "a kind of neo-Ottomanism". Turkey is trying to influence countries that could still be "nostalgic for the Ottomans which the Turks had." But Turkey itself, according to Taylor, noted the problem in that approach. Laza Kekić noticed a very low level of investment, especially in B&H (about 200 millions €), but also noted that a very significant increase of the Muslim population in the Western Balkans is happening and it would make the door to Turkey even more open. The current percentage of 35% is however significant enough.

State                                                                                                                                  % Muslims

Albania                                                                                                                                     57%

Bosnia and Herzegovina                                                                                                         51%

Kosovo                                                                                                                                      96%

Macedonia                                                                                                                                33%

Monte Negro                                                                                                                            19%

Serbia                                                                                                                                          3%

Western Balkans Total                                                                                                            35%

*Source: CIA, World Factbook Library 2017

Among the Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia and UAE were distinguished as exporters of ideology and radicalism, on the one hand, and investors on the other. The UAE openly advocate the strategy of creating friends around the world, and in the Western Balkans UAE seeks to ensure presence and strongholds before the region becomes part of the EU. Kekić also emphasized that buying real estate in Bosnia was nothing more than providing comfort during the summer to the owners of the Gulf. In some ways, the influence of Croatia has been problematized, but it is said in some segments (Croatian argument on the Islamic threat) that we are witnessing an exaggeration.

It is concluded that the countries that have been discussed have different interests in the region and different ways of achieving them, but any involvement in the region that undermines progress towards stability, security and good governance and prosperity should be of concern to the United Kingdom. Great Britain's Postbrexit cooperation with international partners is necessary to minimize the scope for action against these goals.

The influence of Russia is highlighted as a factor of special importance. Its goal was to slow down the progress towards good governance / rule and full democratization of the region. While the extent of Russian interference can be a matter of debate, the prospect of destabilizing the region should not be underestimated.

Overview of media status, government influence on the civilian sector and other issues related to human rights and freedoms has shown that there are still serious threats to society throughout the region. The deterioration of the situation has been highlighted by the rise of authoritarianism, which is particularly related to Serbia. The educational system in B&H was seen as a problem because there are still two schools under one roof, and the very peripheral appearance of the multiethnic music group in Srebrenica is presented as a move forward what has banalized and undermined critical research about B&H. It was suggested to utilize mechanism by taking scholars to Britain to pursue training to support local educational institutions. This concept is in fact already elaborated in the field of education of future leaders, which is implemented through the embassy program in Sarajevo, which builds a proBritish attitude in B&H and the region. Indeed, it is very clearly said that the UK can use 'soft power' and enhance the actions of others in the international community by acting through organizations such as the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The British government's response, in fact, has given indicators on how and on what way it seeks to influence socio-political developments in the country.

The number of Chevening Scholars from the Western Balkans has more than tripled from 14 in 2014 to 49 in 2017. As part of our Western Balkans Summit preparations, we are engaging with current Chevening scholars and exploring how and where best to build on the existing scholarships and fellowships.  All six Western Balkan countries participate in the FCO’s International Leaders Programme. In addition, in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2014 the British Embassy’s Fellowship scheme has brought to the UK more than 200 influential leaders from a variety of sectors. This has allowed us to exchange ideas; share best practice; and create a powerful network with which we continue to work closely to promote essential reforms inside Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A very important section of the debate was the topic on extremism and anti-democratic nationalism with an opening attitude on the rise of Islamist radicalism. Vesna Bojičić-Dželilović gave reduced, and without essential understanding, insight at the "presence of Wahhabi and Salafis", describing it through the prism of increased public manifestation of religion. It was noted that a certain number of the region went to the Syrian and Iraqi battlefield, but in essence these numbers are not significant in comparison to a number of Western European countries such as France, Belgium and others. Marko Prelec, as well as several times before, gave a very concise and thorough insight into the question of radicalization and Islamist groups, stating that the whole story should be set in the context of 'long and well-documented history of exaggeration if not creation / imitation of Islamic threats' for political purposes. Lord Ashdown added that Bosnia and the Bosnian war to those who recruit for ISIS continue to be high on the agenda. 'It's important to them,' he said, 'and that should be even more important to us.' From this point one can understand the Lord's critique of the Government of Great Britain because of insufficient effect on the clarification of the Bosnian War and the removal of the consequences of what the Bosniaks (Muslims) would obtain satisfaction and trust in Europe. This would undermine the arguments of those who place European passivity in the context of disrespect for the Muslims of Bosnia or the Western Balkans in general. So-called Islamic radicalization was seen as a threat, but it was emphasized that the rise of the nationalist discourse, especially among the Serbs, is probably a more complex and more troubling trend.

The problem of migrants is also noted, but it is emphasized that the Agreement between the EU and Turkey (2016) significantly reduced their number. Nevertheless, it was stressed that the Western Balkans could be faced with major problems if this agreement is going to be terminated, what would lead to a situation in which the states of the region would face millions of migrants, which could not objectively serve them.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Centre (BSC).

* Originally written in Bosnian language within the project "Bosna i Hercegovina i Berlinski proces: Analiza stanja ključnih procesa u BiH pred Londonsku konferenciju 2018" [Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Berlin Process: Analysis of Key Processes in BiH prior to the London Conference in 2018], Balkan Studies Center (BSC).