A political memorial used by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to promote his own narrative overseas has been criticized by Kosovo.
Gjergj Dedaj, the Kosovar ambassador in the North Macedonian capital of Skopje, announced his unhappiness with Erdoğan’s approach to the Balkans and his discourse about a 2016 abortive coup in Turkey that many believe was a false flag operation.
“No to a political memorial of Erdogan’s Turkey,” Dedaj wrote on Facebook, referring to a memorial in 15 July Democracy Park in the Albanian capital of Tirana that was erected by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), the long arm of Erdoğan’s government for promoting religious and nationalist propaganda overseas. He rejected a memorial representing the current politics of the Erdogan regime and instead suggested memorials for what he called the Ottoman Empire’s genocide, the crimes of communism, the war in Kosovo and others.
Within a couple of hours, the Turkish Embassy in Skopje responded to the Facebook post by Ambassador Dedaj, condemning him and accusing him of hostility toward Erdoğan.
In a written statement the Turkish Embassy “condemns the Kosovar ambassador in Skopje for sharing a post containing unfounded claims against Turkey and hostile discourse against the Turkish president.” Furthermore, “the latest message shows that our decision was the right one not to meet with the ambassador of Kosovo, Dedaj, who has again spoken out against our country and is unaware of the responsibility of his title,” the official statement said.
Turkish Ambassador to North Macedonia Tülin Erkal Kara, a former MP from Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), accused her colleague of acting undiplomatically. However, Kara is known in Skopje as the representative of Erdoğan’s political party rather than a diplomat for the Turkish state. She has been known to be a vocal supporter of radical Turkish groups. She is a political appointee and not a career diplomat and has been busy managing the illicit business between Ankara and Skopje, with operatives from the Turkish security and intelligence services frequently visiting her residence to maintain the base the Turkish government set up in Macedonia for managing Balkan-wide clandestine operations.
Kara has not hesitated to interfere in the local politics of North Macedonia when In May 2018 she implied that schools linked to Erdoğan critic the Gülen movement were raising students to be terrorists, according to a report by online news outlet Romanya Haber. Thousands of Macedonian students have received quality education at these schools, which have been operating since 1996. Yet Kara suggested Macedonians attending the schools were “terrorists” or “supporters of terrorism,” sparking an angry reaction from locals.
The coup attempt in July 2016 was orchestrated by Erdoğan in order to create a pretext for the crackdown that ensued. At the time Erdoğan called the failed coup “a gift from God” and moved Turkey away from the core values of the EU and NATO by using the coup to further restrict democratic rights. Over half a million people affiliated with the Gülen movement have been put in detention facilities since July 2016. Tens of thousands of people, including civil servants, police officers, soldiers and businessmen, have either been dismissed or arrested. Moreover, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has conducted operations on foreign soil targeting dissidents.
Western Balkan governments remained reluctant to act on Turkey’s behalf and in most cases refused to be an accomplice to persecuting people affiliated with the Gülen movement, despite overall warm ties. In an exception to this, Kosovar security forces allowed MIT to abduct six Turkish nationals — educators Cihan Özkan, Kahraman Demirez, Hasan Hüseyin Günakan, Mustafa Erdem and Yusuf Karabina — who were working for a group of schools affiliated with the Gülen movement in Kosovo, along with Dr. Osman Karakaya, on March 29, 2018. It was alleged that MIT was instructed to kidnap five Turks but that Özkan was added to the list in Pristina by former Turkish Ambassador to Kosovo Kıvılcım Kılıç.
The operation sparked international condemnation. The Kosovar parliament set up a committee to investigate how six Turkish citizens were abducted and illegally deported to Turkey. It was also criticized by high-level officials, ministers, political party representatives and authorities in Kosovo. Ambassador Dedaj’s social media post was the latest example revealing the reaction of Kosovar bureaucratic and diplomatic elites to Erdoğan’s illegal operations and his increasing influence in the Balkans.
Erdoğan’s Balkan policy, in general, aims to propagate Islamism and destabilize secular democracies, thereby enhancing Turkey’s influence on local societies. Turkey finances mosques across the Balkans to support President Erdogan’s Islamist and expansionist agenda. From Ankara’s perspective, North Macedonia, with its diverse demographic and strategic location, is seen as a gateway and springboard for moving forward with Islamist projects devised by the Erdoğan regime for all of Southeast Europe.
The recruitment of young Muslims from North Macedonia has been encouraged by Islamist NGOs that have the political and financial backing of the Erdoğan government, while official Turkish government agencies are involved in more subtle ways of aiding and abetting these proselytizing efforts. In the first case two Turkish Islamist NGOs stand out from the rest, although there are others that work in the shadows as well. One is the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İHH), a pro-government Islamist organization that smuggled arms to al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria and Libya. The other is the Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı), which is run by jihadist cleric Nureddin (or Nurettin) Yıldız, a radical imam who is closely aligned with the Turkish president. Interestingly enough, Turkish government agencies are linked to Macedonian Islamists including the Islamic Youth Forum (Forumi Rinor Islam, or FRI) and Kalliri i Mirësisë (Spike of Kindness) through these Islamist associations. TİKA had previously been brought before the Turkish Parliament over claims of connections to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Nusra in the Balkans.
TİKA has implemented more than 900 projects worth approximately €60 million in North Macedonia. According to members of the European Parliament, TİKA projects are leading to a consolidation of Sunni influence in the region.