Turkish-Bosnian relations have long been shaped by the long-lasting legacy of Ottoman rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which only came to an end when Austria-Hungary occupied it in 1878.
The fall of Yugoslavia and the end of the Bosnian war in 1995 provided an opportunity for both countries to re-establish and strengthen ties.
One of the methods Turkey has used to support the relationship is to provide development assistance to Bosnia through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, TIKA.
Development assistance, a typical part of the external action tools of the countries in the European Union and the US, means use of state funds to implement projects to improve the living conditions of people in the chosen partner country.
At the same time, development assistance is a tool of soft power and public diplomacy. This component, or side effect, of development assistance must be underlined when it comes to looking at TIKA’s role as the most visible Turkish government actor in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Since 1995, TIKA has implemented more than 800 projects in the formerly war-torn Balkan country, which have focused mainly on education, health, agriculture and restoration of cultural heritage.
When it comes to health and agriculture, typical projects aim at hospital modernization or support for local farmers, which is a common approach of all donors.
The most visible sector of TIKA’s work, however, is the restoration of Ottoman architectural heritage, including bridges, mosques and other monuments destroyed by Bosnian Serb or Croat military forces during the 1992-5 war.
One of the eloquent examples of this was the reconstruction of the Emperor’s Mosque in Sarajevo, implemented by TIKA between 2014 and 2015.
Costing around 1.3 million euros, the mosque was ceremonially reopened by former Bosnian presidency member Bakir Izetbegovic and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The long list of historical Ottoman sites repaired by TIKA also includes the Sarena Mosque in Tuzla, the famous Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge in Visegrad, eastern Bosnia, and the State Archives in Sarajevo. Others include the house in which former Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic was born in Bosanski Samac.
There is no doubt that these projects have helped to preserve or restore the glorious cultural heritage of the Ottoman era in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But they also bring Turkey greater visibility, and highlight perceptions of it as an important friend.
Besides its engagement in Ottoman heritage reconstruction, TIKA has had a significant impact in education in Bosnia, alongside other Turkish actors.
During the early 2000s, Turkish investors opened two international private universities in Sarajevo, for example. Support for education has also targeted state faculties. The Faculty of Philosophy in Zenica opened a TIKA-funded library in its Turkish language department in 2013.
The student exchange ratio between the two countries has also gradually grown over the last years, as has the number of schools offering Turkish as a second language.
All of these projects and university openings were accompanied by grand ceremonies, handover parades and, of course, by political agreements driven predominantly by the main Bosnian Muslim party in Bosnia, the Party of Democratic Action, SDA.
Besides its role as a great donor, Turkey tries to present itself as a great investor in Bosnia. During his visit to the country in 2018, President Erdogan, for example, promised Turkish investment in the planned 3-billion-euro Sarajevo-Belgrade highway.
An image of Turkey as a great friend, protector of the Bosniak community in Bosnia, and as a key investor, is further cemented the close relations between the SDA and Erdogan’s AKP.
A look at the data collected by Bosnia’s Foreign Investment Promotion Agency, however, shows that Turkey is not even among the top ten biggest foreign investors in the country.
Despite that, Turkey’s strategy is apparently bearing fruits. In 2017, the International Republican Institute conducted an opinion poll that showed that the perception of Turkey in Bosnia was very positive.
Some 26 per cent of Bosnians polled said they considered Turkey their country’s greatest ally. When it comes to development assistance, 22 per cent of people said they believed Turkey was the single biggest donor to Bosnia and Herzegovina. That figure rises to 38 per cent among Muslim Bosniaks.
In reality, according to the official OECD data, the biggest donor to Bosnia is the EU. Its assistance to Bosnia was ten times greater than Turkey’s in 2017.
Turkish development assistance meanwhile continues to play a significant role in creating a perception of Turkey as a great ally of Bosnia and Herzegovina – which resonates especially among the Bosniak community. Strengthening political ties, hand in hand with use of “soft power” tools, is a strategy that is paying off for Turkey.