Erdogan as an admired sultan or an instrument in political competition? Locals' perceptions of the Turkish presence in Serbian Sandžak

Stefan Jojić / 15 Jan, 2021

This paper provides original insight into Turkey's engagement in the Serbia's Sandžak region with a particular focus on locals' understanding of the Turkish presence. Its findings are based on extensive field research and confirm the divergence between the perceptions of ethnic Serbs citizens and political elites, and their Bosniak counterparts. However, the study also shows that the Bosniak elites are not homogenous in their view of the Turkish presence in solely positive terms and that Turkey's reputation among the Bosniaks of Sandžak is instrumentalized by local political-interest groups in their mutual clashes.

This paper seeks to fill the gap in research of Turkish policy in the Balkans, providing original insight into Turkey’s presence in the Sandžak region of Serbia with a special focus on local perceptions. More specifically, this study deals with locals’ understanding of the Turkish presence, as well as differences in perception between different ethnic, political, ideological, and interest groups. The article also deals with how the foreign factor is being used in political confrontations between different political-interest groups in Sandžak. Given its historical, demographic, and geopolitical features, and declared significance for strategists in Ankara, Sandžak region is a fruitful area for exploring Turkey’s foreign policy in the region. 

The research draws on primary and secondary sources, and data obtained from dozens of interviews with elites and citizens of Sandžak cities and towns. The results confirm the assumed divergence between the perceptions of ethnic Serbs citizens and political elites, and their Bosniak counterparts. While the former mostly have negative attitudes about the Turkish presence, which they observe through the lens of a more or less transparent realpolitik agenda, the latter group is characterized by positive attitudes about Turkey’s presence. 

However, the Bosniak elites are not homogenous in their perception and not all of them see the Turkish presence in solely positive terms. Unlike their opponents from other Bosniak parties, members of the conservative Justice and Reconciliation Party and liberal elites can be singled out as having somewhat more pragmatic and critical views of Turkey. Hence, this case signals a clear divergence in attitudes about Turkey among different political and ideological poles of the Bosniak populace. 

The results also indicate that Turkey’s reputation among the Bosniaks of Sandžak is instrumentalized by local politicalinterest groups in their mutual clashes. Intending to undermine the positions of rivals in Turkey or to influence local public opinion, some local actors try to present others as enemies of Turkey, while promoting narratives about their own close ties with Ankara. The paper provides original insights in the Turkey’s engagement in the region and is of interest to researchers of socio-political realities in Sandžak and the Balkans, as well as those interested in presence of Turkey in Sandžak, the Balkans, and Europe in general.