The Platform

Pictured: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s inclusion in the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan-led Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States has precipitated an alarming burst of joint Turkish and Hungarian irredentism. Erdoğan and Orbán’s approaches to governing and foreign policy are embodied in this way.

Orbán began a policy of “Eastern opening” by using Turanism to find new allies in his war on European values and to be a bridge between Europe and autocrats in Turkey, Central Asia, and the Far East. However, Turanism in Hungary is an ideology popularized by fascist circles in the interwar period.

Self-isolated and what Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s chief policy adviser, describes as “precious loneliness,” Erdoğan has grasped at straws to find a like-minded ally. But the fact is that Turkey under Erdoğan is not seen as a true partner for the Balkans that want to consolidate their democratic values, strengthen ties with Western Europe, bolster respect for human rights, and enhance their access to international trade. For allies, Erdoğan has turned to countries ruled by strongmen.

Some were shocked that the government in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, would invite Russia to occupy its country following intense and bloody protests. However, the Turkic Council, Erdoğan, and Turkish lawmakers praised the government’s response to the unrest that has resulted in at least 164 dead and thousands detained.

Erdoğan has taught Orbán how to become a promising autocrat without losing membership in the European Union despite holding illiberal values.

These two leaders have kept their domestic political agendas alive with irredentist maps, which were the cause of conflicts in the Balkans.

In May of 2020, Croatian President Zoran Milanović urged school graduates not to publish any old maps that make Croatia look any bigger than it is now after Orbán posted a provocative Facebook post wishing good luck to students taking their final exams, with a globe showing the borders of Greater Hungary that included portions of modern Croatia.

Orbán’s map of Great Hungary, bordering the Ottoman Empire, included large parts of modern Ukraine, Serbia, Romania, and Slovakia, as well as the northern half of Croatia – all lost under the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Additionally, in November, Erdoğan and his extreme-right coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli, posed before a map of the “Turkic world,” or “Turkish Turan” showing Turkic nations. This map is actually a map that has been on the last pages of primary school books in Turkey for many years. However, it is not a coincidence that the pose comes at a time when Erdoğan was most politically stuck in domestic politics and his expansionist discourse was the most aggressive.

As Erdoğan and Orbán have been trying to turn the political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina into an advantage for their personal agendas, their simultaneous irredentist moves continue to threaten the EU’s southeastern border.

Seeing pan-Turkist irredentism as a tool for their partnership in authoritarian expansionism, Erdoğan and Orbán aspire to be populist actors in the Balkans with their different approaches towards their coreligionists. Erdoğan is reshaping Turkish politics in an Ottoman image. However, this discourse of conquest means occupation in Turkey’s near abroad.

A mixture of pan-Islamist and pan-Turkist emerged as Erdoğan tried to balance his responsibilities to his ultra-nationalist far-right coalition partner in domestic politics with his goal of being the leader of the Muslim world. Conspicuously, Erdoğan did not speak out against China’s human rights abuses against Muslims so as to not upset Beijing.

Since the 2010s, Turkey’s soft power in the Balkans has markedly shifted from the charitable undertakings of the early 1990s and 2000s. Erdoğan has sought to fulfill his regional but personal ambitions by various means, whether through the exportation of intense political polarization to Turkic and Muslim communities near abroad or through the employment of Turkish state institutions to intervene in the ethnopolitics of ethnically divided nations.

Actors who benefit Erdoğan in his leadership game in the Balkans, such as Bakir Izetbegovic, a Bosniak member of the Bosnian Presidency at the time, are gaining financial and political support from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, state broadcaster TRT, and the Anadolu Agency. On the other hand, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Bosnian Presidency, has the backing of Erdoğan. Thus, Erdoğan somehow unites ethnic political elites who typically resent one another.

Orbán and Erdoğan are increasingly alike. Although European elites describe Orbán as “Europe’s bad boy” and popularize his policies by calling them pragmatic, he is following in Erdoğan’s footsteps when he threatens to send millions of vulnerable migrants to Western Europe.

Orbán, like Erdoğan, has a tendency to support strongmen wherever he finds them. Orbán recently provided Bosnia’s semi-autonomous Republika Srpska entity with €100 million in financial assistance for opposing Western sanctions against secessionist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik.

Orbán portrays himself as a defender of Christianity in Europe and continues to present his administration as “the last bastion against Islam in Europe.” Ankara, which sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world, does not seem to mind. In fact, Orban recently said that the challenge with Bosnia is the Muslim presence in the country. While Muslim Bosniaks, who are native to the country, immediately denounced Orbán’s Islamophobic remarks, Turkey’s foreign minister was playing football in Budapest with his counterparts from the Visegrád Group.

Only time will tell whether the increasingly aggressive policies of Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be their undoing but both leaders have decimated opposition parties virtually guaranteeing that neither faces any domestic opposition to their autocratic rule.

A. Sencer Gözübenli is a Zagreb-based Turkish researcher who focuses on issues concerning national minorities and specializes in transnational identity politics and kin-state activism in the Balkans. Currently he is pursuing his doctoral studies in Sociology at Åbo Akademi University in Finland with special focus on minority issues in inter-state relations in the Balkans.