[Public Diplomacy] Conclusion: Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and cross-border neo-populism (Part 9)

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.

9. Conclusion

To conclude this evaluation of Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities with an attempt in answering the initial question whether coalitions of municipal mayors can challenge the rise of populism, the results appear sobering. As the selected examples in this contribution show, the leitmotif of reconciliation of former enemies through town twinnings — as was the motive behind the unfolding of German-French friendship — can be seen as an antithesis to the motto of Bosniak-Turkish sibling cities: here, not the motive of reconciliation between former enemies, but rather the assumed sameness, affinity and identity are the underlying concept. Not diversity, but identity — in a very litteral sense of being identical — is promoted and propelled by Turkey’s security promise for the post-genocide generations of Bosniaks and the collective, existential trauma of extradition and helplessness. 

One aspect in this discoursive relationship is outstanding: the simultaneous condemnation and denial of genocide. Most of the arrangements exist between municipalities governed by the illiberal, identitarian partner parties AKP and SDA, and unsurprisingly – given their illiberal profile – they do not promote genuinely liberal values like diversity, as the examples in chapter 7 have demonstrated. In that sense, the repeated condemnation of the genocide against the Bosniak people in the 1990s by Turkish neo-populists should be interpreted as a selective instrumentalization — and not as a statement against genocide per se. As the subtext of the causa Pamuk shows, the Islamist Turkish mainstream is far away from a recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915/16, with regular repercussions on the broader, global stage of public and formal diplomacy. This selective stance towards genocide makes the Turkish case, indeed, comparable to the official Serbian position regarding Srebrenica: genocide denial, against all facts and proves, is upheld by the discoursive strategy to highlight the own (Serbian) victimhood in World War II. The discussions around the film release of Dara of Jasenovac in Serbia in 2020 illustrate that: as human rights activist Sonja Biserko from Serbia pointed out, „The film Dara was made in order to reduce the story of Srebrenica“ (Faruk Vele, 2021). 

The question raised by Sezin Öney (cf. chapter 1) whether coalitions of liberal municipalities can challenge the rise of populism, isn’t directly applicable in the given context: here, illiberal parties are already in power. They have seized important positions in the city halls, and they already do shape the course of city diplomacy. And still, important lessons for possible liberal competitors in the field of city diplomacy can and should be drawn from this development, even though in a rather indirect way: every liberal incentive needs to reckon with their illiberal counter-part and their identitarian, neo-populist appeal. It is important to take into account that these sibling cities are, despite their specifities, no isolated cases: similar to the Bosniak-Turkish arrangements, there exist numerous town twinnings between Russian and Serbian „siblings“, which are no less illiberal. 

The contradictions to common definitions and understandings of what populism is (or is not) do not invalidate the finding that cross-border neo-populism is amongst the driving forces behind the arrangements of city siblings between Anatolia and the Western Balkans – especially amongst the more powerful, Turkish “siblings”: the cases at hand rather show that populism in itself is undergoing a substantial transformation, which is why it the notion of cross-borderneo-populism, instead of classical, nation-bound populism, is recommendable when treating official Turkish public diplomats in the Western Balkans and their negotiants.

Late sociologist Ulrich Beck had qualified the whole set of contemporary social, political, and natural-spatial transformations a “metamorphosis of the world (…)“, which „(…) means that the ‚metaphysics‘ of the world is changing.”(Beck 2016, p.6.) With ‚metaphysics‘, Beck refered to all kind of former certainties, starting from the family and each individual’s place in society – reaching as far as the climate change, the dissolution of former “fixed stars” among geopolitical superpowers, including all institutions of the nation-state. This all fosters the widespread feeling that ”[t]he world is unhinged” (Beck 2016, p. xi) and that people don’t understand it anymore. Paradoxically, this accounts even for nationalists – who are, then, no real “nationalists” any more – as well as for religious fundamentalists:

Regardless of which past era people take flight to in thought – the Stone Age, the Biedermeier era, the time of Muhammad, the Italian Enlightenment or the nationalism of the nineteenth century – if their actions are to be sucessful, they must build bridges to the world, to the world of ‚the others‘. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, spaces of action are cosmopolitized, which means that the frame of action is no longer only national and integrated, but global and disintegrated, containing the differences between national regulations in law, politics, citizenship, services, etc.

(Beck 2016, p.10.)

I don’t understand the world any more“ — a graffiti comment in an entrance of a Berlin-Neukölln building in March 2020, when the shock of the first pandemic lockdown hit the public opinion hard. Picture by Thomas Schad.

And yet, the nation-state as an important category doesn’t become nominal, as Stephen Castles has put it in 2007, when the notion of methodological nationalism was firmly established. Simultaneously, the cosmopolitization of the world would remain widely ignored by vast parts of the institutionalized academic landscapes, which themselves remained national domains — even when aspiring „internationalization“:

Nor should the national dimension be neglected. Nation-states remain the location for policies on cross-border movements, citizenship, public order, social welfare, health services and education. Nation-states retain considerable political significance and have important symbolic and cultural functions. But it is no longer possible to abstract from cross-border factors in decision-making and planning.

(Castles 2007)

The Bosniak-Turkish entanglements show both aspects of the transformation of the nation-state and social reality: at once, previous archmonopolies of the state – like public education or health services, as mentioned by Castles – are still strongly influenced by national regimes, even when transcending the national border. Meanwhile, the activities themselves are located in a transnational, „cosmopolitized space of action“, as Beck put it (Beck 2016). With Beck’s notion in mind, I hope to have contributed to a broader, practical and theoretical understanding of cross-border neo-populism, which may be relevant to other contexts, as well. I hope these observations offer a fertile ground to further guesswork and development of policy recommendations for a rapidly transforming, social environment and its challenges. The latter may neither decrease anytime soon, nor is it very likely that practical solutions can be developed, unless the conceptual framework of our used notions is adapted to the cosmopolitized „metamorphosis of the world“: as John L. Austin had it, we „do things with words“ (Austin 1962).


If you want to read the whole article, please click and access this page, where I have integrated all single chapters / posts to one article. If you want to quote, you can use the recommended for of citation below.

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and the unfolding of cross-border neo-populism, Inkubator Metamorph, 31 July. Available at: https://thomasschad.wordpress.com/2021/06/22/public-diplomacy-can-networks-of-local-governments-challenge-the-rise-of-cross-border-neo-populism/ (Accessed: Date of access).


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