Bosnian Muslim leader defends Erdogan plan for Sarajevo rally

Turkish president angry over EU states' ban on campaign events

Bosnian Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic has strongly defended Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plan to hold an election rally in Sarajevo this month, after several EU countries banned such campaign events.

Mr Erdogan intends to address members of the Turkish diaspora from around Europe in Bosnia's capital on May 20th, to rally support before June 24th elections and defy EU disapproval as Ankara expands its influence in the Balkans.

Germany and the Netherlands cited security concerns when barring Turkish politicians from campaigning for last year's referendum on boosting the power of Turkey's president, prompting Mr Erdogan to accuse them of using "Nazi methods"; last month, he said Austria would "pay a price" for imposing a similar ban.

“President Erdogan is coming... For some reason, many in the West don’t like our friend, and there are a number of insecure Bosniaks that don’t like him,” said Mr Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim (or Bosniak) member of his country’s tripartite presidency.

“Their problem is that he is a powerful Muslim leader like no other has been for quite some time. They don’t have a problem with Muslims who are primitive, uneducated, who are no competition,” local media quoted him as saying on Thursday night.

Achieved ‘miracles’

Mr Erdogan's Turkey had achieved "miracles" despite "internal terrorism, internal war and all those wars taking place close to its borders, all this while caring for three million refugees... We will show that he has friends who are proud of him," Mr Izetbegovic said.

After discussing the Turkish leader's plans with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday, Mr Izetbegovic said: "I don't see why the visit should be controversial in Germany. Merkel and Erdogan are not bosses in Bosnia...and they are both welcome."

Turkey is a resurgent economic, diplomatic and cultural force in the Balkans, swathes of which were ruled for centuries by Ottoman leaders who are lauded by the increasingly autocratic Mr Erdogan.

While cementing power at home, his relations with the EU have soured, particularly due to tensions over the refugee crisis and the arrest and sacking of tens of thousands of Turks following a failed July 2016 coup attempt, which Mr Erdogan blames on US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Secretly detained

In late March, five Turkish teachers and a doctor who allegedly belong to Mr Gülen's network were secretly detained in Kosovo and deported to Turkey.

Kosovo's prime minister Ramush Haradinaj denied all knowledge of the operation and sacked his interior minister and intelligence chief.

In response, Mr Erdogan said Mr Haradinaj would “answer” for “protecting terrorists” and warned: “The operation in Kosovo was not the first and will not be the last” of its kind.

Many also saw Ankara's influence behind Sarajevo's decision in February to drop plans to honour Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winner and outspoken critic of Mr Erdogan.

"The West cannot really bear Turkey's stance, particularly in the Balkans, as well as steps, initiatives, efforts that Turkey takes in the region," Mr Erdogan said after hosting talks with Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic this week.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe