Turkey’s ever-popular soap operas are helping to improve the country’s shaky image in the Balkan region – though some tap into a kind of Ottoman nostalgia that has concerning implications.
As American and European Union involvement in the Balkan region dwindles, Turkey and other powers have been working to fill the gap.
Partly through the use of so-called “soft power”, Turkey’s goal is to revive feelings of warmth towards the Ottoman legacy among those it considers “kin communities” in the Balkans – especially, though not only, the Muslim communities in the region.
One of the best examples of this use of “soft power” is the popularity of Turkish soap operas in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Not only do they boost Turkey’s image in the eyes of local populations, they also serve to rewrite history to an extent.
Turkey has been gradually moving closer to the Balkans ever since the former Yugoslavia dissolved in the 1990s. An economic boom in the early 2000s and the rise of the Justice and Development Party, AKP, has brought the region even closer into Ankara’s focus.
Under former prime minister Ahmet Davutaglu, Turkish foreign policy shifted towards its current “zero problems with neighbours” policy, and to win-win policies that allow Ankara to spread its influence politically, economically and culturally.
The boom in Turkish soap operas throughout the Balkans during this time provides a good example of this influence.
Over the past decade, almost every television outlet in the Balkans has broadcasted at least one Turkish soap opera. Researcher Mehmet Huseyin Bilgin says Turkey was the second highest global exporter of TV series in 2014, including soap operas – behind only the United States.
In countries like North Macedonia, Turkish soap operas are the second most consumed content on TV, following the main news shows. In Montenegro, they have largely replaced Latin American competitors on the market. Their popularity also shows no sign of fading.
Although many of these soap operas have no direct link to Turkish officialdom, the government in Ankara shows its appreciation for them by helping to disseminate this product.
In many cases, the government offers programmes to local TV stations in the region for free, as is the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The shows are broadcast in all regional languages, exposing local households to an idealized depiction of Turkish life and helping to create a positive image of Turkey that resonates in parts of the Balkans thanks to a shared cultural history.
The Fall of Leaves, released in the Balkans in 2010, reinforced the image of traditional family structures as it followed the Tekin family and its patriarch, Ali Riza, as they transition from a small village to life in Istanbul.
Other shows glorify the history of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Magnificent Century, which is set during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century.
More recent shows, like Bride from Istanbul or Orphan Flowers, challenge negative stereotypes about Turks by showing lives lived in a healthy balance of Islam, democracy, modernity and traditionalism.
There is no one reason why these soap operas are so popular in the Balkans. Some researchers attribute it to shared cultural values among societies that were part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries.
They also lack violence and obscene language, as well as having easy-to-follow plots with realistic characters. Thanks to dubbing in local languages, they are easy to understand, and highlight many of the linguistic and cultural similarities between Turks and their neighbours.
Many feed on an appetite for nostalgia. A succession of wars and tough economic conditions have changed and challenged traditional family models in the Balkans. Serbian sociologist Ratko Bozovic say these series connect audiences to a past that now seems lost, as new models struggle to take hold.
While nostalgic feelings can be positive, the recent controversy in Kosovo over the show The Last Emperor also illustrates their dangers. This show taps into a particular kind of Ottoman nostalgia that both the ruling AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been cultivating.
But it came under harsh criticism for portraying the late 19th-century Sultan Abdul Hamid II as a virtuous leader and hero, trying to preserve law and order as the Ottoman Empire crumbles in the hands of predatory European powers, Zionists, and liberal intellectuals.
Unlike Magnificent Century, which Erdogan disiked according to an op-ed by Thomas Lecomte, The Last Emperor was directly funded by the Turkish government.
While the entertainment industry often rewrites details in historic fiction, this show might not have caused a stir in Kosovo had it been the first time that Erdogan’s government appeared to revise historical narratives.
In the past, the Ministry of Education in Kosovo, at the request of the Turkish government, also re-edited history textbooks for 5th to 13th graders, glossing over former references to the Ottoman Empire’s violence and removing references to “revenge” and “killing”.
The question is how effective this kind of cultural influence is in moulding public perceptions. Some say it hasn’t worked much so far. Erdogan has, for example, failed to persuade Western Balkan governments to close all the institutions associated with his exiled critic Fethullah Gulen following the failed attempted coup in Turkey in 2016.
But future implications need to be considered. Surveys by Bilgin have found that people who follow Turkish TV series do tend to have more positive views of Turkey in general.
Turkish TV was also most popular among people whose educational background was limited. Alongside the other ways that Turkey is projecting its soft power, through educational exchanges, mosque reconstructions and more, the shows look set to steadily improve Turkey’s image as time goes on.