[Public Diplomacy] Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and a semantic problem with ‚populism'(Part 2/8)

On this series: This blog post belongs to a series under the title and leading question „Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?“. The complete series are my contribution to an edited volume by Dr. Agata Rogoś, postdoctoral research fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Agata’s Edited volume’s working title is „Permeability of dispossession / Dispossession of borders“. In accordance with her, I publish my contribution on my personal homepage, prior to the finalization of the book. The final version may still change, whether due to further copy editing and proofreading, or regarding the unclear and unforeseeable course of events and political circumstances in Europe, in the Western Balkans, and in Turkey. Yet, I believe that the phenomenon of cross-border neo-populism, as in the given case of Bosnia and Turkey, will not disappear any time soon. The complete list of references will be included in the first and in the last contribution of this series, which consists of eight single sections.

2. Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and a semantic problem with ‚populism‘

The most relevant, cognate scholarship for grasping the context of Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and the role of (neo-)populism in it can be subdivided in three groups: first, Turkish-Balkans public diplomacy; secondly, populism; and thirdly, town twinnings and city diplomacy.

2.1 Turkish-Balkans public diplomacy

With the ever more visible role of Turkish actors in the Western Balkans, the field of Turkish-Bosniak relations is far from being understudied. The controversies on the refugee trail between Anatolia and the EU via the so-called Balkan route and the growing tensions between the increasingly authoritarian, ruling AKP-regime in Turkey and European leaders in recent years have further increased the public and scientific interest in that context. Hence, there is an abundancy of articles on Turkish-Balkanic public diplomacy, including the nexus of Neo-Ottomanism with its stress of the Ottoman history of the whole area. In the same group are studies of cultural diplomacy and the soft power produced through popular culture and formal cultural initiatives. Moreover, studies on the role of religion and its (ab-)use in public diplomacy are crucial in this realm. Most authors agree that the engagement of official Turkish actors in the Western Balkans is strongly shaped by their stress on historical, cultural and religious ties (Hagemann 2020; Demirtaş 2020; Kaya/Tecmen 2011; Tecmen 2018; Schad 2015; 2018; 2019; Öktem 2012; 2014; Bechev 2012; Öztürk/Gözaydın 2018; Baser/Öztürk 2020a; 2020b; Muhasilovic 2018; Balkan/Balkan/Öncü 2015; Saatçioğlu 2020; Pačariz 2020).

The constant invocation of the shared Ottoman past of the Balkans and Turkey has been labeled and criticized as Neo-Ottomanism as early as 1998 (Yavuz 1998). The culturalist outfit of these activities should not lead to the fallacy that economic factors are less significant in the Turkish engagement in the Western Balkans (Hake 2020); however, for reasons of length, strictly economic aspects like trade balances can’t be treated here separately, but will rather be addressed as integral parts of the Turkish cultural activities: as I have argued previously (Schad 2018; 2019), the renovations and restaurations of Ottoman architectural sites (such as bridges, mosques, shrines and other buildings) serve the goal of gentrifying not only space, but also the image and previously low prestige of the Ottoman past more generally; in a similar vein, Ayşe Tecmen has systematically analyzed the efforts of the Turkish public diplomacy incentives as „nation branding“ (Tecmen 2018). In the case of the „Ottoman heritage“ (Osmanlı mirası) in the Balkans, gentrification also involves the aspect of added value that follows the valorization of a respective object: the building or renovation site is also a source of profit for the respective construction company, and for the private and/or state-directed holding (Schad 2019). These aspects will be readdressed in section seven.

The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad, completed in 1577 by the Ottoman star architect Mimar Sinan, is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List from 2007. In 2010, the Turkish International Co-operation and Development Agency TİKA started (and completed) its renovation. Picture by Thomas Schad, taken in 2016.

The stress of the Ottoman past in the official Turkish actors‘ cultural initiatives is the reason why their activities have been classified cultural diplomacy from the very beginning of their visibility in the Balkans. The year 2009, when the first branch of the Yunus-Emre-Cultural Centers opened its doors in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, can be seen as a first significant benchmark (Kaya & Tecmen 2011, Schad 2018; 2019). However, Turkish culture and cultural diplomacy are not only promoted in direct and subtle ways by offical representatives of the Turkish state: from the point of view of soft power – which according to Joseph Nye (Nye 2008) needs to work subtly in order to be successful – the popularity of Turkish TV-series was (and still is) of enormous relevance (Batuman 2014; Özçetin 2018; 2019; Pekesen 2015; Vitrinel 2017, Schad 2018). Especially the latter aspect implies that an understanding of the appeal of “Turkish culture” in the Balkans cannot solely be explained by studying the ruling regime’s activities: much broader strata of the involved societies (e.g. TV consumers/prosumers in Bosnia and Turkey) and their various discoursive contexts are, as informal actors, involved in the process of cultural diplomacy.

Given the Islamist background of the ruling party AKP, its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their Muslim partners – notably the Bosnian-Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (Stranka Demokratske Akcije / henceforth: SDA) (Latal & Büyük 2020) – the importance of the religious factor in this relationship is overly obvious. This is also the reason why Muhasilovic – in his otherwise uncritical assessment – has called the AKP-styled public diplomacy a faith-based diplomacy (Muhasilovic 2018). Other authors use the notions of Islamist or Islamic capital in the context of neoliberalism (Balkan, Balkan & Öncü 2015). As the examples in this article will show (section 7 & 8), religious categories and symbols are used by Turkish actors abroad abundantly as identitarian markers, mobilizing factors and as their „unique selling point“ – which allocates them with certain competitive advantages against other (e.g. European) competitors on the market of public opinion production (Porter 1998; Tecmen 2018).

2.2 Populism

Unlike the abundancy of studies of public diplomacy, there are so far no studies on neo-populism in the Bosniak-Turkish context, as it is understood here: neo-populism is a cross-border phenomenon that addresses more than one national public. A revision of selected samples from the existing scholarship on populism shall be most helpful to explain the relative absence of literature. The aim here is twofold: first, as is the case with any other given form of contemporary populism, Turkish-Bosniak neo-populism can (and should) be situated in a much broader, European and even global context of the rise of illiberal, populist movements. Secondly, and despite the general problems of vagueness and disagreement in widespread definitions of populism (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser 2017; Rosanvallon 2020), the most commonly assumed core elements of populism shall be highlighted, because these assumptions will help to understand why the concept of populism is both an approriate and problematic category in the given cross-border context of Turkey and Bosnia and the neo-populism that spans in-between.

Populism is often described as a phenomenon that occurs both on the left and the right, as defined by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Chantal Mouffe, and Ernesto Laclau (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser 2017; Laclau 2005; Mouffe 2018; 2020). Mouffe and Laclau are the most prominent advocats of a left-wing populism (Laclau 2005; Mouffe 2018) – a proposition which was critically discussed, most recently, by the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon (Rosanvallon 2020), on whose “anatomy of populism” this study significantly draws. In the context of the current failure of right-wing populists during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump, Mouffe has revitalized the discussion whether left-wing populism could be a remedy for right-wing populism (Mouffe 2020). The fact that populism is ascribed to as different regimes and movements as Podemos in Spain or Erdoğan in Turkey has led to a situation where the notion of populism is omnipresent, while a coherent theory is still missing (Rosanvallon 2020) – which is a constant challenge for scholars of populism (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser 2017, p.1.).

In the given context of this study, the cross-border character of populism with agents from both Turkey and Bosnia is even widening the confusion, also given that their scope of action is by far not limited to southeastern Europe and Anatolia: while the most influential political parties involved here – Turkey’s ruling party AKP and the Bosnia-Bosniak SDA – are without doubt right-wing parties, they often do apply the same vocabulary as liberal, left-wing actors in an increasingly overlapping, geographical and social context that is hardly separable from discourses in Western Europe, North America or elsewhere: anti-Muslim racism, Islamophobia and the condemnation of genocide are topics addressed by illiberal Islamists, as represented by the AKP-regime and its sub-organizations (Nordhausen 2020, Khorchide 2020) – while at once, they are also frequent topics of liberal opinion-makers with (assumedly) no Islamist affiliation, e.g. in Western Europe, where they count as genuinely liberal topics (cf. Lewicki 2017a; 2017b; Sinani 2017; Baser & Lewicki 2017).

One of the most impressive example of this contradictory overlap of right-wing (illiberal) and left-wing (liberal) discourses – if this binary makes sense, at all – is the yearly, so-called “European Islamophobia Report” (cf. Bayraklı & Hafez 2017) published by SETA, a Turkish global think tank which belongs to the Turkish ruling party AKP: some of its authors have, paradoxically enough, published both with SETA and on the case of those who are persecuted by the illiberal, anti-democratic Turkish regime (Lewicki 2017, Baser & Lewicki 2017). This example shows how difficult it is, in the digitalized and interconnected era, to speak of populism in Turkey – as the propositions of the populist speakers reach out to a global, cross-border public: a more precise denomination could be populism from Turkey.

Perhaps even more importantly, notions like populism, liberalism, Islamophobia and countless of other examples face dilution, an increasing vagueness, and a decreasing meaningfulness: an effect that appears to be propelled by myriads of hastily written papers, immediately shared on academic OSN, accompanied by millions of unedited comments in the abysmal width of the online social networks. The academic discourse and its field is experiencing a new openness, which means that the old „gate keepers“ of the discourse are less influential than previously: the borders are open.

The semantical problems with the previously nationally framed understanding of populism are substantial, as they question its very core concept: the people. Following Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, “populism has three core concepts: the people, the elite, and the general will“ (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser 2017, p. 9.). In the Bosniak-Turkish context, the question arises who the people actually is: if the assumption proves right that what is at play between Turkish mainstream politics and Bosnian local municipalities actually is a new, emerging form of populism – neo-populism – which involves a people that is not congruent with an imagined, national community – then formal logic implies that established concepts of the people are as processual and transforming as the concept of populism, itself.

The still salable core concept of the people – imagined as the people of a nation-state – is also responsible for the perseverance of the national frame even when neo-populism in cross-border (or global) contexts is tackled. Although Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2017)(like numerous other authors) address populism in Latin America or in Europe – which are supra-national categories – these are used by the authors as collective nouns for summarizing similar patterns within single nation-states: the umbrella term in Europe doesn’t denote a populism that is European, but different populisms which are European. And indeed, the national lense may appear as the most coherent perspective – given that populists (and especially nativist populists) nearly always speak on behalf of their nation(-state), and their people.

The Turkish styled neo-populism rather ressembles the pan-movements of the past (Bougarel 2018), and although it may appear absurd to most contemporaries: public diplomats from Turkey do openly and repeatedly argue that their people – the Turkish people – is identical with another people, like the Bosniak people or Kosovo. In the recently highlighted relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan, it is not uncommon to read the popular slogan „one people, two states“ (bir millet iki devlet), which also is the motto lurking behind an embedded Turkish-Azerbaijani news portal called „Two States One News“ („İki Devlet Bir Haber„). In its own regard – and apart from any further assessment of its appropriateness – Turkey’s tendencies to herald an inclusive, possessive, new vision of a cross-border people (with itself at its center), could be interpreted as vanguard.

In any case, the sense of mission (Sendungsbewusstsein) of leading Turkish neo-populists shows that the narrowness of the nation-state focus may miss the development of new, broader forms of populism, which are expansive and transcendent of national borders: as the case of Bosnian-Turkish sibling cities shows, this new form of neo-populism projects itself , amongst other activities, in the shape of cross-border town twinnings, which were widely deemed inherently liberal-leaning forms of action. However, the application of the national frame may turn out to be yet another form of methodological nationalism (Wimmer & Glick Schiller 2003; Beck 2016) in an era of blurred (or blurring) boundaries (Gupta, Nugent & Sreenath 2015) – although it remains absolutely unclear, at this period of time, how far-reaching, momentous, or short-living the Turkish imagery will be – and what will, in the long run, „happen to the people“.

Finally, the common (and recent) distinction between populist parties and nativist parties needs to be addressed. Whereas nativism is supposedly more frequent in North American and Western (Central, Northern) European societies with a high share of immigrant population, classical populism is more salient in Central and Eastern Europe, according to Cas Mudde and others (The democratic society 2020; Mudde 2017). Mudde argues that the use of the notion populism for describing anti-migrant parties would be a form of “whitewashing racism” – for nativists mainly rallye against immigrants; moreover, compared to classical populists, they lack strong leadership (Mudde 2017). The divide between nativism and populism is subject to ongoing discussions and disagreement (Vieten 2020). Yet, according to this (questionable) distinction, the Turkish-Bosniak form of neo-populism would rather not qualify as nativism: refugees, newcomers, or outsiders – as opposed to the autochtonous or established (Vieten 2020; Elias/Scotson 2013) – are not targeted as the main problematic ‚Other‘ by the ruling Turkish party AKP; refugees and victims of genocide abroad (e.g. the Bosniaks) are even used as a matter of propaganda in the regime’s constant and populist attacks against Europe (Idiz 2015). With its “strong” leader, the AKP-regime would rather qualify as a (classical) populist party. Again, the awkward question where to locate and how to define the populus of the populists remains unsettled, and the distinction between populism and nativism cannot offer us a convincing loophole out of that predicament.

2.3 Town twinnings and city diplomacy

As this study focuses Turkish-Bosnian intermunicipal arrangements, literature on town twinnings and the more recent notions of paradiplomacy and city diplomacy deserve attention. As Andreas Langenohl retraces in his study of a Germany based context, town twinnings gained momentum directly after the Second World War, with West Germany and France being early strongholds. The first international town twinnings in post-Nazi Germany, however, were established with British and US municipalities. Soon after, the project of French-German Friendship (Amitié Franco-Allemande / Deutsch-Französische Freundschaft) would become the most prominent case and outnumber all other inter-country twinnings in Europe (Langenohl 2015). These arrangements‘ exchange activities were probably amongst the most concrete experiences of European integration in numerous Europeans‘ upbringings – even before the “generation Erasmus“.

These activities were often seen as essential in the process of reconciliation between the two former archenemies – not only in the reduction of mutual stereotypes and hostile sentiment, but also on an inter-municipal level of politics: departing from an initiative by Swiss intellectuals, a first meeting of French and German mayors at Mont Pélérin was arranged in 1948, only a few years after the Second World War. In the long run, this first initiative led to the International Union of Mayors (Union Internationale des Maires / Internationale Bürgermeister-Union, UIM / IBU), which kept the exchange activities alive (Langenohl 2015, pp. 18-19.). In the following decades, other coalitions, like the European coalition of cities against racism – including the three Turkish municipalities Şişli, Kadıköy (both in Istanbul) and Antalya – have evolved (“European Coalition of Cities against Racism”). However, Turkey launched its own programmes and mayoral coalitions (section 4), which are not part of the European integrational frameworks: they rather counter the European project of integration with their own, Turkish project in its remarkable Neo-Ottomanist vest and vision of an enlarged „people“ – by promoting cross-border kinship.

According to Nurcan Özgür-Baklacıoğlu, one of the earliest analysts of Turkey’s kin and identity-driven foreign policy, its stress on „related” or „kin communities“ (akraba topluluklar)[1] is crucial. Thus, the Turkish-Bosniak sibling cities can be seen as expressions of a „Neo-Ottomanist kin policy in the Balkans“ (Özgür Baklacıoğlu 2006; 2015). However, the construction of discoursive kinship abroad is closely related to the inner Turkish dynamics of so-called hemşehrilik or “fellow-townsmenship” (henceforth: hemşehrilik) – a pattern of sociebility and (re-)settlement which, therefore, must be taken into account (section 5).

The phenomenon of hemşehrilik was meticulously described by Ayça Kurtoğlu on the example of the power relationship between the state, the district of Keçiören in Ankara, and the rural origins of its inhabitants with their ties to fellow townsmen (or „kinsfolk“) in their hometown/-land (memleket) (Kurtoğlu 2004; 2005), which is located inside the Turkish state (anavatan). The importance of this power structure, which was deeper explored in the 2005 (online 2009) dossier on hemşehrilik by the European Journal for Turkish Studies (Hersant & Toumarkine 2005 [2009]), arises from the fact that both hemşehrilik in an inner-Turkish context, and the sibling arrangements between Turkish and non-Turkish towns, can be used to establish clientelist relationships; both are based on agnatic relations and bonds of spatial belonging, even when agnation is rather constructed than biographically given – and sometimes, it is both.

Furthermore, the Turkish notion of sibling cities (kardeş şehir) must be situated and read in a context that Nükhet Sirman has called „the making of familial citizenship in Turkey“ (Sirman 2005; 2008), from where it departs and transcends the national border: according to Sirman, the state is imagined as a household, and citizenship as a hierarchical relationship between relatives inside that household. Most helpful for a deeper understanding – from an outsider’s perspective – of how Turkish family tropes and spatial categories such as „Father State“ (devlet baba) and „Motherland“ (anavatan) are intertwined, is Carol Delaney’s anthropological work on the metaphorical pairing of „the seed and the soil“ (Delaney 1991; 1995).

Last but not least, the notion of city diplomacy was used (Burksiene / Dvorak / Burbulytė-Tsiskarishvili 2020) in recent studies, in order to grasp the political impact that coalitions of city mayors and town twinnings can exert. To my knowledge, this notion was not in use in studies of Turkish-Bosniak sibling cities – but as the example of Orhan Pamuk’s disinvitation by the city of Sarajevo will show (chapter 7), silent voices of Sarajevo’s AKP-dominated twin towns from Turkey in the background played a decisive role. Hence, sibling cities, districts and their representatives can and do act as bargainers, negotiators or diplomats with a political agenda – and as stakeholders of the shared economy with their respective own market interests. But before some of the activities in these settings can be explored, the main territorial-administrative characteristics of the Turkish state need to be taken into account.

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) ‚Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and a semantic problem with ‘populism“ ( = Part 2 of the series Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?)Inkubator Metamorph, 23 June. Available at: https://thomasschad.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/public-diplomacy-turkish-bosnian-sibling-cities-and-a-semantic-problem-with-populismpart-2-8/ (Accessed: Date of access).

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[1] Unlike the English notion related, the Turkish word akraba unmistakably incapsulates tropes of the family system; akraba as an adjective and noun usually translates as kin, kinsfolk/kindred, cognate, relatives, family, blood relation, etc. To translate akraba topluluklar simply with related communities, as so often is the case in the English secondary literature, risks to ignore the way „how institutions think“ (Douglas 1986; Dündar 2018) – and the representratives of the institutions of the ruling regime in Turkey think in family metaphores.


Find all the referencese in the first blog post of this series (click here)


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