Erdogan dismisses ‘death threat’ and fears over Balkan intentions

Turkish leader holds controversial campaign rally in Bosnian capital

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brushed off an alleged assassination threat and concerns over Ankara's growing role in the Balkans, as he addressed thousands of supporters at a controversial election rally in Sarajevo.

Mr Erdogan held Sunday's event in the Bosnian capital after European Union states with large Turkish diaspora populations – including Germany, Austria and the Netherlands – barred such rallies ahead of Turkey's June 24th presidential and parliamentary elections.

On the eve of Mr Erdogan's visit, Turkey's deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag warned of a possible attempt to kill him while in Bosnia, and Turkish media reported that the country's MIT intelligence service had received such a tip-off from ethnic Turks living in Macedonia.

"This threat will not deviate us from our path. This news from MIT has reached me and yet I am here," Mr Erdogan said in Sarajevo, where Bosnian security minister Dragan Mektic said he had no information about any assassination plot.

Mr Erdogan did not directly link the alleged threat to US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen – whom he accuses of being behind a failed July 2016 coup attempt – but he vowed to root out his opponent’s supporters in Bosnia and the Balkans, comparing their supposed network to an “octopus”.

“The struggle is real. Through mutual endeavours we expect to rid Bosnia of [their] presence,” he said.

Resurgent force

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, however, particularly due to tensions over the refugee crisis and the arrest and sacking of tens of thousands of Turks following the coup attempt.

Mr Erdogan has lambasted EU states for refusing to allow Turkish campaign rallies, and in Sarajevo he declared: "If thousands of people coming from different parts of Europe cannot meet the leader they want to hear, that would not be right for me. Hence we will meet with them here."

He also dismissed concerns in Bosnia and the EU over Ankara’s rising influence in the poor and still ethnically divided country, and he pledged to boost already substantial Turkish investment in its economy and finance construction of a new highway between Sarajevo and Belgrade.

"Our country has no secret agenda other than the welfare, unity and economic development of Bosnia," Mr Erdogan said after meeting Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim member of the country's tripartite presidency, which also includes representatives of its Serb and Croat communities.

“Efforts to prove otherwise are futile,” he added.

Mr Izetbegovic has staunchly defended Mr Erdogan’s visit, accusing critics of being hostile towards the kind of “powerful Muslim leader that we have not had for a long time”.

“We will show that he has friends and that there are those who are proud of him,” Mr Izetbegovic pledged.

Balkan experts say Turkey is increasingly competing with the EU, United States and Russia for influence in the region, and is seen by many Muslims in Bosnia and elsewhere as their natural defender among major powers.

Bodo Weber of the Democratisation Policy Council in Berlin said the Sarajevo rally was part of Mr Erdogan's bid to woo diaspora votes and millions of Turkish citizens of Bosnian descent, but also "a way to stick a finger up to the German and Dutch governments and the EU without having a real public clash".

James Ker-Lindsay at the London School of Economics said Mr Erdogan wanted to “send out a message that, under me, Turkey is a serious political player, extending influence and engaging with areas that were traditionally under Turkish influence.”