Illiberal city diplomacy: Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and the unfolding of cross-border neo-populism


In this contribution, I discuss the possibilities and limits of town twinnings, city diplomacy and coalitions of mayors as possible solutions to the global rise of populism and neo-populism. I will focus the case of Turkish-Bosnian (Bosniak) town twinnings, which will be called sibling cities throughout the text. These recent forms of town twinnings are deviant from many other, well-known examples — mainly for being dominated by authoritarian, right-wing and neo-populist actors. Populism, despite being a global trend, is often perceived as a phenomenon that occurs inside a given nation-state. However, cross-border coalitions of municipalities between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey together form a polity beyond the level of national governments — while at once, they remain being heavily shaped by the latter. Alongside with this phenomenon, a new form of cross-border neo-populism is emerging: unlike „classical“ populism, neo-populism addresses more than one populus (people).


Neo-Populism; Populism; City Diplomacy; Turkey; Bosnia; Public Diplomacy; Sibling Cities

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) Illiberal city diplomacy: Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and the unfolding of cross-border neo-populism, Inkubator Metamorph, 31 July. Available at: (Accessed: Date of access).

Table of contents

1. Introduction: Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?

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

2.1 Public diplomacy between Turkey and the Western Balkans

2.2 Populism and cross-border neo-populism

2.3 Town twinnings and city diplomacy

3. The territorial-administrative structure of Turkey

4. The illiberal framework for Turkish municipalities’ scope of action abroad

5. ‘Hemşehrilik’ (fellow-townsmenship) and the venture of Bosnian-Turkish sibling cities

5.1 Eastern and Western Immigrants in the megacity

5.2 Longings, belongings, and the memleket

5.3 Father State and the lost soil of the old Motherland

6. „We will reappropriate our forefathers’ lands“: the ruling party and the Balkans

6.1 Medeniyetçilik: a Turkish Islamist concept of civilizationalism

6.2 Visions of a „Turkish World“

7. The role of ‘Renommiergeld’ in a culturally annotated economy

7.1 Turkish spiritual intelligence and its Muslim competitors

7.2 The Turkish ağabey and the Bosniak kardeş as uneven trading partners

8. Tribute to the sultan: the disinvitation of Orhan Pamuk by Sarajevo

8.1 Corruption in the palace

8.2 The „conquest of the hearts“

8.3 Speakable and unspeakable genocides

9. Conclusion

10. Acknowledgements

11. Footnotes & References

1. Introduction

In this contribution, I will discuss the possibilities and limits of town twinnings, city diplomacy and coalitions of mayors as possible solutions to the global rise of populism and neo-populism. I will focus the case of Turkish-Bosnian (Bosniak) town twinnings, which will be called sibling cities throughout the text: this metaphore better responds to the Turkish notion of kardeş şehir, the Bosnian notion pobratimlja, and the asymmetrical relationship of these arrangements. These recent forms of town twinnings are deviant from many other, well-known examples — mainly for being dominated by authoritarian, right-wing and neo-populist actors. Populism, despite being a global trend, is often perceived as a phenomenon that occurs inside a given nation-state. However, cross-border coalitions of municipalities between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey together form a polity beyond the level of national governments; at once, they remain being heavily shaped by the latter. Alongside with this phenomenon, a new form of cross-border neo-populism is emerging: unlike „classical“ populism, neo-populism addresses more than one populus (people).

According to Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, populism is a „buzzword of the 21st century“ (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser 2017), and the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon has even proclaimed a “century of populism” (siècle du populisme) in his most recent monograph from 2020 (Rosanvallon 2020). But despite the speed and the intensity of its venture, the unfolding of Turkish-Bosniak cross-border neo-populism is rather neglected in the ever-growing thickness of scholarship on populism, town twinnings, Bosniak-Turkish public diplomacy, and city diplomacy. Yet, the scarcity (or inexistence) of studies treating neo-populism as a distinctive phenomenon that differs from nation-state centred populism, I argue, does not necessarily imply that it doesn’t exist or that its significance and relevance were neglectable. Hence, some of Turkish-Bosniak neo-populism’s most important commonalities with and differences from populism, as most prominently understood, need to be demonstrated in this contribution.

At the entrance to the famous Galatasaray Lycée in Istanbul-Beyoğlu, the Erbakan Vakfı (Foundation) announces: „The Islamic Union will be founded with your light [enlightenment]“. Necmettin Erbakan, here portrayed in proximity to Sultan Abdülhamid II., is seen as the spiritus rector of Turkey’s current, populist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Late Erbakan (d. 2011) was not only a leading political figure of various Islamist parties and short-time Prime Minister of Turkey (1996-1997), but most importantly, the co-founder and key figure of Millî Görüş („National Outlook“). Millî Görüş is a religious-political movement with strong nationalist traits. While Nationalist-Islamist, it also contains a strong tendency to transgress the national borders of Turkey. The Turkish regime’s Sendungsbewusstsein (sense of mission or, perhaps, „mission civilisatrice„) behind the recent cross-border initiatives of cultural diplomacy in the post-Ottoman realm cannot be understood without taking into consideration the role of these and numerous similar, Islamist Turkish organizations, movements and actors in the Balkans. Picture by Thomas Schad (taken in 2016).

But why should local governments and their coalitions be in the spotlight? Why and how should politicians at the local level be able to challenge state-level populism? These questions arise from the observation that the municipal (local) level often seems to be a promissing and fertile ground for non- or anti-populist policies, as some examples from Europe and Turkey shall show.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, nearly 140 German municipalities have repeatedly signaled their capacities and committment to host refugees — anathema to the country’s right-wing populist parties. But what seemed to be arrangeable with the electorate at the local level, was apparantly inacceptable to the federal government, whose representatives thwarted the German mayors‘ offer. In the German context, these municipalities‘ signals can be understood as a liberal pushback against the rise of the nativist, populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in the public opinion, which had gained momentum following the influx of refugees in the years 2015-2016 (“Geflüchtete an griechisch-türkischer Grenze” 2020).

Another example for resistance against populism came from Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest: these four capitals have signed the „Pact of Free Cities“ in December 2019, demanding the EU to bypass their populist (and allegedly corrupt) national governments in the allocation of funds (Öney 2019; Tamkin 2020) – a discussion which also resonates in the November 2020 veto of Hungary and Poland against the EU budget and coronavirus recovery plan (Boffey 2020; „Hallo, Diktator“, 2020).

A third example of pressure onto state level populism exerted by local politicians comes from Turkey. Even though it remains highly questionable how liberal the Turkish oppositional Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/ henceforth: CHP) really is, many burnt out Turkish voters have praised the results of the 2019 municipal elections as a sign of liberal relaxation (Duran 2019). The simple slogan „Everything will be beautiful“ (Her şey güzel olacak) by Ekrem İmamoğlu from the CHP („İmamoğlu’na yumruk,“ 2019) led him win the forcibly repeated Istanbul mayoral election twice, which was interpreted as a strong expression of the electorate’s fatigue with the nearly two-decade long experience with the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi / henceforth: AKP) (Öney 2019). Conflating İmamoğlu’s victory and the statement of the Central European mayors‘ alliance, Turkish analyst Sezin Öney raised the following question:

Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? And if, in other cases, if populist movements are not in power, can local governments create a viable alternative against the rise of populist movements?

(Öney 2019)

Öney’s questions shall deserve a deeper investigation in this contribution, and be readdressed in the conclusion.

Departing from European and transatlantic, post World War II town twinnings, municipal coalitions are by far not a very recent undertaking. But while the town twinnings from the After-WWII period are mostoften perceived as liberal projects, aiming at bridging and reconciliating historical conflicts – many of the Turkish-Bosnian sibling city-arrangements are heavily shaped by illiberal, identitarian actors, both from Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina.[1] Secondly, the vagueness of the notion of populism deserves discussion: populism is often applied to right-wing and left-wing movements – hence, it can’t be taken for granted that the above quoted slogan by İmamoğlu was per se anti-populist or non-populist, just because he opposed the strongly identitarian, right-wing populist regime represented by the Turkish ruling party AKP; nor should his oviously popular slogan lead to the premature conclusion that he and his party are „left-wing“.

All these questions will be discussed throughout this article, which evolved out of a blog contribution from January 2020 (Schad 2020), and which is based on material collected during the field research (2013-2019) for my doctoral thesis (which was defended in 2020; cf. Schad 2015; 2018; 2019). Amongst others, the material basis consists of my year-long monitoring of the development of Turkish-Bosniak public diplomacy, its speech acts and activities, and the reactions of public opinion makers in Turkey and the Western Balkans. The main sources used here are newspaper articles, secondary literature, own photography, pop-cultural products, ethnographic interviews, and public speech acts.

In Chapter 2, this contribution explores some of the most important findings and gaps in the existing secondary literature, followed by a brief outline of the territorial-administrative infrastructure of Turkey Chapter 3. In Chapter 4, a summary of the illiberal framework for Turkish municipalities‘ scope of action complements the Turkish administrative structures. In Chapter 5, I will demonstrate how both together form the institutional ground for the development of Turkish-Bosniak sibling cities in the AKP era: a phenomenon which is deeply – and often in a contradictory way – interwoven with the context of Balkan immigrants‘ (muhacir) activities in their former homelands. In Chapter 6, some of the Turkish ruling regime’s activities in the Balkans will demonstrate its sense of mission — a Sendungsbewusstsein or mission civilisatrice (medeniyetçi) in its own regard, following a revisionist narrative of „re-appropriation of our forefathers‘ lands“ which can also be observed in the Turkish foreign politics throughout the past years in the Mediterranean basin. Chapter 7 will show that the Turkish ruling regime’s institutions follow the pattern of a mixed gift economy, which besides hard, monetary currencies is strongly leaning on culture, religion, and tropes of the family-system – and in which two main items of trade are at stake: first, what Marcel Mauss (Mauss 1966) has called Renommiergeld (i.e., bragging money / prestige), and secondly, the promise of security. However, as Chapter 8 will discuss, the „trade agreement“ between the unequal, figurative siblings as trading partners shows frictions and tensions. In Chapter 9 (the conclusion — soon to be added), I will readdress the leading question on the possibilities and limits of town twinnings as possible counter-actors of cross-border neo-populism and wrap-up some of neo-populism’s main features – in an overall, global context that late sociologist Ulrich Beck had couched in the metaphore of the metamorphosis of the world (Beck 2016).

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 Public diplomacy between Turkey and the Western Balkans

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.

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres alt-Attribut; sein Dateiname ist visegrad.jpg.
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 and cross-border neo-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

Turkish-Bosnian intermunicipal arrangements deserved little attention in the existing literature on town twinnings and the more recent notions of paradiplomacy and city diplomacy. 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)[2] 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 (chapter 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.

3. The territorial-administrative structure of Turkey

Turkey’s capital Ankara is located in the Central Anatolia Region (İç Anadolu Bölgesi), which is one of Turkey’s seven regions (bölge); however, these are rather geographical than administrative units.[3] Administratively, the country is subdivided into 81 provinces (il), 973 districts (ilçe), numerous towns (şehir or belde), villages (köy) and neighbourhoods (mahalle). Istanbul, situated at the shores of the Bosphorus in the northwesternmost Marmara Region, is an anomaly of the centralized state – given that its significance as a cultural, social, economical and cosmopolitan megacity (megakent[4]) outshines Ankara’s attractivity in any thinkable way.

Political map of Turkey: subdivisional level of the ‚il‘ (province). Picture from OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay.

Although the exact number of Istanbulites is subject to discussions, official figures assume that approximately 16 million out of 84.711.239 million inhabitants of Turkey live in Istanbul, which makes up to 20 % of the total population. Together with 29 other Turkish cities (şehir), Istanbul is attributed the status of a metropolis (büyükşehir, literally: big city). As Istanbul comprises 39 districts (ilçe) with their own, respective municipal sub-governments (belediye), each presided by a mayor (belediyebaşkanı), the metropolitan government (büyükşehir belediyesi) of the whole metropolis is represented by the metropolitan mayor (büyükşehir belediyebaşkanı). Currently (January 2021), this position is filled by Ekrem İmamoğlu from the oppositional CHP (as initially mentioned).

Regarding the sibling cities and sibling districts arrangements (kardeş şehir or kardeşbelediye) with Balkan and other towns, these exist either between Turkish metropoleses and foreign cities – and/or between single districts and their counterparts, towns, or communities abroad: an example for the former is the sibling city arrangement between Istanbul and Sarajevo. The latter can be found in the sibling of the Osmangazi district within the metropolis of Bursa and the Stari Grad municipality within Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo („Uz sevdalinke, kafu i rahatlokum otvoren obnovljeni Baščaršijski trg“, 2015). As the Turkish „sibling“ mostly figures as the proactive, more powerful „elder brother“ in the sibling cities arrangements, their situation within the fabric of Turkey’s political administration and their relation to the central state need to be outlined in the subsequent section.

4. The illiberal framework for Turkish municipalities‘ scope of action abroad

Turkey is a centralized state with strict vertical hierarchies, many of which were inherited from the post-Coup d’État constitution of 1982. These structures approve of the recognizable traces of the military junta throughout the past four decades – and in fact, as Ayşe Gül Altınay had shown in her seminal The Myth of the Military Nation (Altınay 2004), the strong militarist legacies in Turkey date back to the late Ottoman period and the Republic’s very inception. Especially from the viewpoint of many Turkish perspectives, the long lasting intermezzo of unsuccessful struggles to adjust to the EU’s acquis communautaire (accelerating in the 1990s) and to achieve full membership passed on to repeated refusals by the EU, causing widespread frustration and disappointment in Turkey. The halting democratisation process, the continuing violation of human rights, the unsettled Cypriote question – and not to mention the Kurdish conflict and the negation of the Armenian genocide: all these topics, amongst others, are concrete obstacles in the relations between the EU and Turkey. Moreover, questions of identity, belonging and exclusion certainly played their role, whether on the European or the Turkish side (Terzi 2012; „Turkey and the EU 2018“).

The long shadow of all these conflicts resonates in the hierarchical interrelationship of Turkey’s territorial-administrative structures – and also in the way how relations are established to municipalities in the Balkans. In this regard, one territorial-administrative feature of Turkey is crucial: the institution of the district governorate (kaymakamlık) and/or the governorate (valilik), whose main administrator, the governor, is called kaymakam or vali. The vali is widely regarded as the state’s extended arm into the city – and in fact, it can be seen as a parallel administration to the elected mayors‘ offices.[5] The vali is directly bound to the centralized government in Ankara, and as such, it can bypass the electoral process, especially the local elections (Mahallî İdareler Genel Seçimleri). In this way, many local governments and municipal leaders who had been elected in the 2019 local elections were, in the meantime, forcibly dismissed and replaced by governors (vali / kaymakam).

For instance, after Ekrem İmamoğlu from the oppositional party CHP had won the 2019 local elections in Istanbul in the first round (31. March 2019), the ruling party AKP – following a well-known populist pattern – refused to accept the results; hence, the presidency decided that the vali Ali Yerlikaya would serve as the acting mayor of Istanbul, until the elections were repeated in June 2019 – only to be won by the CHP’s candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, once again. But while in Istanbul, the electorate’s decision was finally accepted by the regime, this was not the case in many other parts of the country — especially in eastern and southeastern Anatolia. The widespread practice of dismissal – often followed by the imprisonment of the political opponents – notably concerns members of the oppositional Peoples‘ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, henceforth: HDP) with its Kurdish roots. Many candidates were accused for being partisans of the militant Kurdistan Workers‘ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, henceforth: PKK), which is considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey and in the EU („Turkey: Kurdish Mayors’ Removal,“ 2020). While the PKK had been engaged in an armed guerilla warfare and a series of deadly, terrorist attacks since the 1990s (especially, yet not exclusively targeting Turkish soldiers), the HDP’s leadership had repeatedly distanced itself from violence and armed resistance. To the contrary, it advocates a political solution for all citizens within the framework of the Turkish state. Yet, the allegation of terrorism is used as a reliable method to discredit political opponents in the public opinion by the ruling party AKP. This method also resonates with support amongst most of the other political parties in Turkey.

A nationalist crowd in Istanbul-Kadıköy, just after the diluted elections on 7 June 2015. The elections were followed by a chain of violent and bloody events, which would take many people’s lives. The „kick-off“ event was the terror attack against young leftist activists in Suruç, situated at the Syrian border, just opposing Kobanê: the Kurdish town under heavy attack of militant Islamist fighters aligned with so-called ISIS or Daesh. The Turkish president then said: „Kobanê will fall, is falling at the moment“. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2015.

Critics of Turkey’s sociopolitical fabric refute the AKP-regime’s terror allegations against the HDP as arbitrary and manipulative: throughout the past years, and especially after the failed Coup d’État from 15. July 2016, it became overly obvious that allegations of terror and conspiracy can easily strike any given political, or even personal, opponent of president Erdoğan (cf. Turan/Çiçekoğlu 2019; Somay 2019). According to political scientist Bilgin Ayata (Ayata 2015) and lawyer Rıza Türmen[6], the HDP was attacked by the ruling regime precisely because it was seen as a „hope for democracy“ („HDP’nin Türkiyelileşmesi,“ 2018): the Kurdish rooted party had developed a liberal-democratic understanding of being Turkeyish (Türkiyeli), instead of being Turkish (Türk), which is an ethno-national category: unlike the latter, the former umbrella identity (Türkiyeli) can theoretically accommodate all ethnic and social groups of Turkey, independently of ethnic affiliation. At the same time, the HDP’s efforts for gender equality are expressed in its principle of a double male-female party leadership (Trogisch 2015): Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş formed the co-presidential leadership of the party together — clearly contradicting the ruling party’s patriarchal understanding of gender roles. Both Yüksekdağ and Demirtaş were imprisoned in 2016.

Any serious discussion on the possible impact of liberal mayoral coalitions need to take the HDP’s case into account: the HDP is probably the only significant liberal party in Turkey – and absent, so far, in the establishment of sibling cities with the Western Balkans. İmamoğlu’s Republican, Kemalist party CHP is no exception when „vital“ national issues, such as the Kurdish conflict and warfare, are concerned. Given the heavy burden of the CHP’s nationalist, overwhelmingly illiberal legacy, the HDP-governed municipalities in the southeast deserve even more attention than Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory – at least if we should not lose track of the leading question whether possible alternatives could emerge from liberal local governments. Given all these conflicts and frictions, it can hardly surprise that the existing sibling-cities-arrangements between overwhelmingly illiberal Turkish municipalities and their Balkan partners often export these tensions abroad — as the following sections shall show.

5. ‚Hemşehrilik‘ (fellow-townsmenship) and the venture of Bosnian-Turkish sibling cities

From the 2000s, accompanying the political rise of the AKP as a result of the 2002 Turkish general election, Turkey and the Balkans saw a rapid growth of the network of international sibling cities (kardeş şehir) and sibling districts (kardeş belediye). Parts of the Balkans – especially where Bosniaks live – show a significant thickness of such arrangements. The reason is not only to be found in the geographic proximity and the shared Ottoman past. There is a complex interdependency of three social dynamics at work: first, agents of the ruling party and their Sendungsbewusstsein or mission civilisatrice (medeniyetçilik, cf. next chapter 6) are strong and generous motivators behind the state-directed sibling cities. Secondly, the dynamics of the so-called hometown associations (hemşehri örgütlenmeleri) inside Turkey as a pattern of settlement in sameness and sociability in the urban neighborhood (mahalle) need to be revisited (cf. Hersant & Toumarkine 2009). Third — and especially this factor differentiates the case of Turkish-Balkan sibling cities from other Turkish sibling-initiatives abroad — the history and agency of immigration of European Muslims from the Balkans, the so-called Muhacir, are important determinants (cf. Özgür Baklacıoğlu 2006, 2015; Schad 2015; 2018; 2019). Most of them, and especially the more recent immigrants from the post-WW II period, settled in the western provinces of Thrace (Trakya), the Aegean (Ege), Marmara and Istanbul (cf. Schad 2015). Before the revisionist rhetorics of the ruling regime can be analyzed in section 6 („We will reappropriate our forefathers’ lands“: the ruling party and the Balkans), the social phenomenon of hemşehrilik (fellow townsmenship) as a „zipper“ that integrates the realm of the family (memleket) into the megacity’s smallest administrative unit, the mahalle, needs to be outlined in the following.

5.1 Eastern and Western Immigrants in the megacity

Although Istanbul is often (for the aforementioned reasons) perceived as exceptional, it is also the probably most representative city of the whole country: immigrants from all over Anatolia and from abroad are not only present, but also represented by their hometown associations. These associations are active either in Turkey, or abroad — in their respective former homelands (memleket), with which they often initiated sibling agreements. Many of my Bosniak interlocutors in Turkey, most of which originate from the Sandžak area between Serbia and Montenegro, highlighted their own agency as foreriders in the establishment of sibling cities arrangements between Turkey and the Balkans. When asked for their opinion of their government’s activities in their memleket, they often stressed that they do not feel at ease with their government’s initiatives „in their name“. This reaction reflects a much deeper, old societal conflict in Turkey: it is the rift of the East-West fault line between those who „came from the other side of the water“, as a proverb literally translates („Suyun öte tarafından gelen”, Bora & Şen 2009), and the Anatolians. In the East-West-binary between Rumelians (Rumelili) and Anatolians (Anadolulu), often also described in the Black-White-tropology borrowed from North America, Bosniak Muhacir people often perceive of themselves as of Europeans, Westerners, and seculars.

In their own perception, many of my Bosniak interlocutors figure opposed to the „Easterners“ from Anatolia. In their eyes, they count for the devout and religious, they are seen as the non-Europeans, and also as Kurds; whereas they see themselves as „Westerners“ and Europeans (cf. Bora & Şen 2009). This does not at all mean that Bosniak or other Rumelian Muhacir people in Turkey were not or less nationalist[7] — let alone less Turkish — than non-Muhacir people: quite to the contrary, they often highlight how very Turkish they were, and how loyal (sadık) to Turkey they had always been, throughout history. As a proof of their loyalty, their contribution to the Turkish War of Independence (İstiklal Harbi / Millî Mücadele / Kurtuluş Savaşı, 1919-1922) and to the earlier, mythically embellished Battle of Çanakkale (Gallipolli Campaign, 1915-1916) as volunteer fighters (đurumlije or gönüllü) would be mentioned: whether in muhacir publications, on posters in the entrance area of hometown associations, or in conversations. Çanakkale is, down to the present day, an important site of national pilgrimage at the Dardanelles. It serves as the highly esteemed lieu de mémoire and foundational myth for Turkish nationalists, reagardless of their figurative easternness or westernness: to the point that a particular group can be „counted in“ as self-sacrificing (fedakar) and loyal (sadık) compatriots, this quasi-religious myth is integrative. As a widespread proverb goes, „all in the same blood“ are represented by the red colour of the Turkish flag, which stems (following the myth) from the blood sacrifice.

This book by the author Sait Kačapor from the Sandžak region started, as the author writes, as a journey to his emigrated relatives in Turkey. For the book, he traveled the whole country and collected all kind of different muhacir stories, including different periods of time (i.e., of emigration). It contains various anecdotes about how Bosniaks acted out on the honour of the Turkish state, whether as far abroad as in Japan, or at home. He reasons on the choice of the book title — „Bosniaks, Turkey’s loyal citizens“ — that it were his Muhacir interlocutors who constantly came up with the centrality of their own loyalty to Turkey. Kaçapor, Sait (2014): Boşnaklar — Türkiye’nin sadık vatandaşları. Sarajevo/Istanbul: Umut Matbaası.

As this example shows, being different from the others — as Muhacir — does not mean being other than Turkish: it rather means that there are one or more deep societal conflicts about the understanding how to be Turkish and who determines what Turkish and Turkish culture would be.[8] I was told in practically every single interview with Bosniak Muhacirs (and their offspring) in Turkey what they perceive of as the most fundamental difference between themselves and the others: they themselves would never — down to the seventh or ninth generation (do sedmog koljena, I was told) — ever marry their akraba (relatives). Cousin marriage — in the Arabic speaking Middle East described as bint `amm marriage by anthropologists — is in Turkey known as akraba evliliği. It is considered to be an eastern practice by Bosniak Muhacir people in Turkey, which corresponds to the fact that in the Balkans, cousin marriage is practically taboo and considered incestuous. Hence, the reactions of many Bosniak Muhacir people to the fact that some of their Anatolian compatriots practice it, often were expressed in extreme disgust. „Bunlar kültürsüz„, they have no culture, was often added as an explanatory comment.

The importance of this societal conflict, where representatives of both sides can claim their own establishedness and the other side’s outsiderness (cf. Elias/Scotson 2013), should not be underestimated in the way how figurative kinship is established through sibling cities (kardeş şehir), either by representatives of the ruling party, or by Muhacir groups: even though representatives of both groups use the same kinship metaphores (like sibling / kardeş) and speak about culture (kültür), they may fundamentally disagree over the meaning and the role of their agnatic or figurative akraba (kinship) — as the example of akraba evliliği shows. In the same vein, there are fundamental disagreements over the notion of culture and the way how culture is brokered by official Turkish cultural centers and initiatives on the market of public opinions in the Balkans.

On the other hand, Muhacir people in Turkey organize themselves in similar ways as their compatriots from Anatolia do. Istanbul’s biggest Bosniak hometown (or homeland) associations (Dernek) in Pendik and Bayrampaşa are part of a myriad of similar associations under Circassian (Caucasian), Kosovar, Albanian, Bulgarian, Black Sea, and many other vernacular (e.g. Malatya, Sivas, Tokat, etc.) auspices in Turkey’s social fabric. These associations are the organizational expression of hemşehrilik, which can roughly be translated as fellow-townsmenship. The main propositions of hemşehrilik suggest that people from the same (hem) city (şehir) or province, upon migration to a city like İstanbul or Ankara, settle conjunctly in the same neighborhood (mahalle) (Kurtoğlu 2004; 2005).[9] Kurtoğlu identifies in the feeling of belonging (aidiyet) — due to the bond of a shared place of origin and shared culture — the primary reason for the emergence and perseverance of hemşehri associations (Kurtoğlu 2005). According to Kurtoğlu, one third of all civil organizations in the capital Ankara in 2003 were hometown associations (Kurtoğlu 2005; Schad 2015, Hersant & Toumarkine 2009).

Two hometown (hemşehri) associations from Trabzon and Kastamonu (both located in the Black Sea region) in Istanbul Üsküdar. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2015.

Although many of my Bosniak informants in Istanbul stressed that the fact of their spatial origin from outside the Republic of Turkey made their case different from other hemşehri associations, they still suited a pattern that is very similar to their compatriots who migrated from inside Turkey to Istanbul: just like them, they settled more or less conjunctly in the same neighborhoods of the same district (e.g. Pendik and Bayrampaşa; cf. Schad 2015), where they founded and constructed their respective associations and their buildings. In that sense, hemşehrilik can be understood as the underlying pattern of bringing the homeland’s realm (memleket) into the metropolis and to integrate it into the urban structure of the neighborhood (mahalle): by doing so, in Henri Lefebvre’s terminology, they produce space as social space (Lefebvre 1991). The main difference between Bosniak Muhacirs‘ space production and that of their fellow citizens from inside the motherland (anavatan) is, that the formers‘ memleket is located across the borders.

5.2 Longings, belongings, and the memleket

In Turkey, the concept of having come from a memleket is very regularly made a topic of in everyday speech. For instance, when getting to know each other, it is one of the most common questions in Turkey to ask „Where is your homeland?“ (Memleketin neresi?) – as common as the question „Are you married or single?“ (Evli misin, bekâr mısın?), which often directly follows the former question. Everybody has a memleket, and is even expected to have one, be it inside or outside the motherland (anavatan), which is Turkey.

Memleket, according to Ayça Kurtoğlu, has two meanings: first, and mostly when the perspective is taken from a position outside Turkey, it can be the land of the nation (ulusun toprağı): in that sense, Turkish speakers in Berlin can be heard speaking about their memleket, which appears identical and synonymous with „Turkey“, which inside Turkey would be denominated as the anavatan. Secondly, it can have a more precise meaning and signify the land of the family (ailenin toprağı) – or, even more precisely, the land of the family’s roots, whereas the roots (in a traditional understanding) are imagined along the patriline, which is called soy in Turkish (Kurtoğlu 2004; 2005; Delaney 1991; 1995; Sirman 2005; 2008).

Inside Turkey, hemşehrilik mostoften refers to the second, patrilinear meaning of memleket, which (in the patriarchal order of society) means „the land of the (fore) fathers“ (babanın/atanın toprağı) (Kurtoğlu 2005). If the question „Where is your homeland?“ is asked inside Turkey to a person who traces her/his patriline back to a place equally inside Turkey, it is not uncommon, even for a second- or third-generation, İstanbul born city dweller, to answer the question with “I am from Malatya” (Malatya’lıyım), even if it were already the paternal grandparents who had migrated to Istanbul. However, when a (post-migrant) Bosniak Muhacir in Turkey is asked the same question, she/he will most likely say „I am Bosniak“ (Boşnağım) or „My homeland is Bosnia-Herzegovina/Sandžak“ (Memleketim Bosna-Hersek/Sancak): their (fore-)father’s true memleket can hardly be named by anything else than what it is — a place outside Turkey.

The oldest and biggest Bosniak association’s building in Istanbul Bayrampaşa in 2015, when the association was still called „Bosna Sancak Kültür ve Yardımlaşma Derneği” (the name was later changed). The façade shows the theme of the Old Bridge in Mostar, the omnipresent symbol across Turkey’s Bosniak homeland associations. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2015.

However, it is not so easy to name the memleket outside Turkey in a way that is understandable and communicable inside Turkey, in Turkish, to all other members of Turkish society. Many Bosniak Muhacirs in Turkey use the notion Bosna-Sancak, as if Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian and Montenegrin Sandžak were one country. This sometimes leads to irritaded reactions by outsiders, and even by Bosniaks and other people from Bosnia-Herzegovina: when I presented the picture above to outsiders, amongst them Bosnians from Bosnia-Herzegovina, this raised eyebrows and question marks. The picture shows the building of the Bosniak Dernek, displaying the Old Bridge (Stari Most) from Mostar in its façade, while the Dernek’s name is Bosna Sancak, but lacks the toponym Hersek (Herzegovina): it appears incoherent, as the real Old Bridge is located precisely in Herzegovina, and neither in Bosnia, nor in the Sandžak. When I explained that practically all members of the Dernek originated from the Sandžak, and not from Bosnia-Herzegovina, this was more than once commented upon as „not authentic“, „false“, and „imaginary“.

Given that every community, and notably national communities, is imagined, it is of course truthful to qualify this form of bricolage from the wide repertoire of Balkan toponyms and metaphores as constructed and „unauthentic“ (cf. Lévi-Strauss 1962). It would probably not be ratified by a Bosnian-Herzegovinian public, even ridiculed, and perhaps conjure upon an inner Bosnian conflict between established and outsiders, e.g. in Sarajevo, where immigrants from the Sandžak are called Sandžaklije and oftentimes perceived as rivals. Yet, inside Turkey, this bricolage can be understood as a succesful and reasonable, communicative strategy.

According to the supposedly lower, general geographic knowledgeability of toponyms outside the anavatan (Turkey) – especially the names of smaller towns and regions, e.g. Sjenica, Tutin, Rožaje, Pljevlja or Sandžak – it is not expected, from the interlocutor, to specify the exact town or region: the person asking for the memleket would probably not know where to locate these places, further complicated by the fact that these places also have Ottoman-Turkish names. The word Sancak in Turkish is known as an older synonym for flag or banner (similar to bayrak), and, more frequently, as an Ottoman-Turkish word for an administrative-territorial unit. This is, in fact, the reason why the border-area between present day Serbia and Montenegro is called Sandžak: it hails from the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, called Novopazarski sandžak in Jezik*, Sanxhaku i Pazarit të Ri in Albanian (which is also spoken in parts of the Sandžak), and Yeni Pazar Sancağı in Turkish. It was one of the last Ottoman lands in the Balkans, finally lost only in 1913, while Bosnia-Herzegovina de facto belonged to the Habsburg Empire from 1878, and de jure from 1908. In the wider Turkish public, all these details are not well-known. Better known, to the contrary, are the toponym Bosna, mainly due to the war in the 1990s, and the Old Bridge from Mostar, especially well-known from the mid-2000s, when the Balkans became an affordable and attractive tourist destination for Turks. This is why Bosna-Sancak and the Old Bridge can be found accross Turkey as an intelligible semantic bricolage.

The categories memleket – the metaphoric belongings of the (fore-)fathers – and anavatan as the motherland exist alongside each other in a complementary relationship, as implied by the family tropology (Sirman 2005; 2008; Delaney 1991; 1995). In this logic, the father of a concrete, Turkish family possesses the concrete soil (toprak), house (ev), and land (memleket). Via hemşehrilik, the „old belongings“ can be — symbolically — interlocked and integrated into the post-migrants‘ urban space in the metropolis and in the Turkish motherland. This is what Bosniak Muhacirs in Turkey do, when they build façades and monuments of the Old Bridge in their Turkish mahalle, when they reproduce other symbols from the memleket, like Sarajevo’s city fountain sebilj, when they add their „ethnic food“, like Pita/Burek, to the national menu: they produce their space and place in society (Schad 2015).

Not unsimilar to the practice of symbolic bricolage in the example of the preceding picture, this form of marketing „Bosniak burek“ (Boşnak Böreği) would not work in Bosnia, but can be seen as a succesful communicative strategy for the Turkish market: In Bosnia, people painstakingly distinguish between Burek, which is always with meat, and Pita, which is never with meat. Everywhere outside Bosnia, however, the word burek/börek/boureki/brik can be used as the umbrella word for all sorts of pita and burek. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in Istanbul, 2015.
5.3 Father State and the lost soil of the old Motherland

With the end of the Yugoslav wars by the early 2000s, the relaxation and liberalisation of the border and visa regimes, new and eased traveling opportunities to the Balkans, as well as the increased economic wealth of many Turkish citizens, it is all but surprising that the Turkish actors in the Western Balkans started to „rediscover“ the „lost soils“ (kaybedilmiş topraklar), as the Republic founder and metaphorical father figure Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Father Turk) is regularly quoted in Turkey: he had refered to the Balkans as the „lost soils“.

According to Nükhet Sirman, the whole political commonwealth of Turkey is also imagined as a household, as suggested in her concept of the „making of familial citizenship“: the Turkish house belongs to the Father Turk (Atatürk), after he had inherited and replaced the Sultan, and the „big house“ of the old motherland (eski vatan) had to turn into „small houses“. As Sirman stresses, the project of replacing the old family concept of the Ottoman pater familias by the „European family“ had thereby always remained troublesome and incomplete (Sirman 2005), which is also why other authors, like Bülent Somay, speak of the „undead father“ (Somay 2019): in that sense, the Sultan from the Ottoman patriline was replaced by the Father Turk Atatürk, whereas Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tries to inherit the latter. The totemic logic, after all, remains intact.

As the concept of the memleket and the aligned questions of belonging — to the family’s father — demonstrates, this also applies in the smaller social unit of the family. And still, when the old belongings of the fathers‘ lands in the Balkans are in question, it is important to distinguish between actors on behalf of the ruling regime — and those who are motivated by their own biographies and other interests. The space production of Turkey’s Muhacirs is, above all, a way to cope with the family’s past, to keep the relationship to relatives in the Balkans alive, to integrate the own family-narrative in a meaningful way into everyday life, or even to obtain double citizenship by one of the Balkan countries — and to enjoy some of the advantages it can bring, like eased traveling or competitive advantages on the global market. When Turkey’s Bosniaks speak of their fathers (atalar), forefathers (ecdad) lost soil (kaybedilmiş topraklar) and memleket, their speech is not primarily figurative or imaginary; it is rather telling of their own family’s narrative, as they often do relate to ‚real‘ relatives, biographies, belongings and even aspirations of citizenship.

To the contrary, the ruling regime’s representatives appropriate and apply the same tropology – even though they may not have a personal, biographical background in the Balkans: their speech bears the clear signs of historical revisionism and misrepresentation. The logic of „bringing the memleket to the anavatan“ appears to be an important, underlying rationale of the ruling party’s cross-border activities and foreign policy.

6. „We will reappropriate our forefathers‘ lands“: the Turkish ruling party and the Balkans

The Turkish ruling regime’s problematic use of a vocabulary which, at the first glance, appears to be identical with that of many Balkan post-migrants, manifests in one of the goals of the AKP’s „Vision 2023“ on its official homepage.[10] There, a collective „we“ announces that „we will (re-)appropriate the reminiscences of our forefathers“ („Ata yadigârlarımıza sahip çıkacağız”), with the historical and emblematic Old Bridge (Stari Most) of Mostar in the background. The same totemic diction is used on the homepage of TİKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency: „Turkey appropriates the monuments of the Ottoman reminiscences in the Balkans“ (Türkiye Balkanlar’daki Osmanlı Yadigârı Eserlere Sahip Çıkıyor). In a similar vein, the reminiscence (yadigâr) is more frequently paraphrased by the notion of the „Ottoman heritage“ (Osmanlı Mirası): thus, figurative kinship relations to the Balkans (heritage) are constructed. This figurative kinship is also expressed in countless other public speech acts, where Bosniaks and Turks are regularly called siblings (kardeş) and relatives (akraba), regardless of their biographies. Similarly, Bosnia, Kosovo, or other places were often called „home“ or declared identical with Turkey by Turkish officials (chapter 7). These samples show that the understanding of the nation-state itself and its borders was widened by the AKP regime throughout the past years, characterized by the use of kinship-metaphores and references to the „old motherland“ (eski vatan), that is: the Ottoman Empire. Concomitantly, the existing and conflictuous questions of belonging, ownership, sovereignty and territoriality in the Western Balkans are amplified with the additional, revisionist rhetorics by the Turkish regime. 

6.1 Medeniyetçilik: a Turkish Islamist concept of civilizationalism

A constant in official Turkish identity-concepts — just as is the case in most of the national identity-concepts across the Western Balkans — is the central role of religious affiliation. Not unsimilar to the early years of the Turkish Republic, when citizenship was constructed and granted first and foremost to Muslim immigrants (and only secondarily according to linguistic affinity), who would become Turks only upon immigration (Danış & Parla 2009; Schad 2016), representatives of the AKP’s public diplomacy initiatives do construct siblinghood (kardeşlik) primarily alongside religious categories. Although representatives of the present-day ruling party distance themselves often harshly from the early Republican (Kemalist) elites — which reflects the aforementioned (section 5) East-West-binary — both regimes relied on shared religion as the commonground for the construction of sameness, identity, and finally citizenship. Their respective understandings of the concrete role of religion, religious institutions, and all subordinate questions and conflicts may differ fundamentally; yet, both the ancien régime of the Kemalists, and „New Turkey“ under the AKP revolve around the identity-core of a (Sunni) Muslim Turkish nation.

In the present-day context, Turkish mainstream Islamists can (in their own understanding) deduce siblinghood from Islamic narratives, similar to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements. In the case of the AKP, the trope of siblinghood between stronger and weaker siblings is deduced from the Islamic myth of origin of the Constitution of Medina (Medine vesikası) following the Hijra (the migration of Muhammad and the first Muslims from Mecca to Yathrib/Medina). This mythic text was (re-)popularized amongst Turkey’s Islamist thinkers in the early 1990s, whereas Ali Bulaç was a central intellectual figure in that process (Bulaç 1992; Demirci 2012; Bora 2015). As for the AKP’s foreign policy and cultural (public) diplomacy, the most important intellectual figure was Ahmet Davutoğlu. The former academic — who turned to high-ranked advisor, foreign minister, and finally Prime Minister of Turkey — can be seen as the AKP’s playwright of foreign policy and cultural diplomacy. In his thought and writings, the centrality of the Hijra and Medina-narrative cannot be missed, which is especially obvious and explicit in his 2016 book Cities and Civilizations (Medeniyetler ve Şehirler; Davutoğlu 2016; 2014 a; 2014b). 

The quite recent centrality of this text in Turkish Islamism is why Turkish scholars have re-formulated the notion of Mediniyetçilik, which translates as civilizationalism, while conserving the religious connotation that more „secular“ concepts lack (Bora 2015).[11] Turkish Islamist civilizationalists praise their own country as some sort of contemporary Medina (Davutoğlu 2016): from here, the superior helpers (ensar) reach out to their inferior co-religionists (dindaş) abroad, who correspond to the mythic figures of the Muslim immigrants (muhacir) from Mecca; in the mythic text, they were helped by their Medina [Yathrib] based, ensar-relatives. In the mythic original text, both the helpers and the helped form a new polity, which becomes the Islamic civilization: thus, their relationship corresponds to the modern concept of fellow citizens (vatandaş). The vision of Turkey as present-day Medina, as politicians, clerks, and embedded journalists of the AKP regime spread it, contains the outlook that Turkey’s stability — whatever that means — conditions the livelihood of Balkan Muslims, as in an article of the AKP-affiliated tabloid Yeni Akit: „If Turkey falls, Bosnia will fall, too“ (Türkiye düşerse Bosna da düşer, Kutlu, M. 2016).

The background of the mythic text of the Hijra — from where the word Muhacir (Muhajir/Muhadžir) derives — and the model Constitution of Medina (Medine vesikası) — which forms the mythical backend of the AKP’s civilizationalist discourse — also help to explain why not only Muslim immigrants to Turkey, but also non-agnatic, Muslim communities abroad are considered „cognates“ (soydaş) (Danış & Parla 2009), „siblings“ (kardeş) and „relatives“ (akraba), as in the name of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı, henceforth: YTB), which was founded in 2010. Under the category „sibling communities“ (kardeş topluluklar), YTB runs a number of activities for groups abroad, which are considered „fellows of language, religion, lineage and heart“ (dildaş, dindaş, soydaş ve gönüldaş) („Kardeş Topluluklar/Genel Bilgi”). Besides sibling cities arrangements, it facilitates and cooperates in countless other activities of Turkish public diplomacy, as well.

6.2 Visions of a „Turkish World“

Yet, even though the described religio-mythical blueprint can mostoften explain the construction of figurative kinship, it is not a completely stringent or coherent concept. Often, the siblinghood-tropology of the ruling regime rather resembles a bricolage of stereotypes from varying sources for storytelling. For instance, in 2003, following a Turkologists‘ summit in Azerbaijan in 2000, the Union of Turkish World Municipalities (Türk Dünyası Belediyeler Birliği, henceforth: TDBB) was founded. The umbrella word „Turkish World“, applied to as different countries as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Kenya or Mongolia, may appear adventurous and incoherent, at the first glance — and very clearly, it is not part of a genuinely Islamic discourse. Here, pan-Turkist and Islamic elements are enmeshed: While countries with significant Muslim populations are targeted corresponding to the trope of co-religionism, others – like Mongolia or Hungary – figure in relation to pan-Turkist legacies in the cosmology of the „Turkish World“ imagery. With regard to the Western Balkans, TDBB comprises 30 Bosnian-Herzegovinian municipalities (Homepage TDBB), nearly all of which are located in majoritarily Muslim communities of BiH: here, the role of kinship and religious affiliation are in the foreground.

Sibling city arrangements initiated by the ruling regime are organized either in various federations (federasyon) and unions (birlik), or as bilateral arrangements between single districts. Other organizations, like the mighty Directorate of Religion (Diyanet), run their own initiatives for sibling districts, and promote the practice of city siblings across „our heart-geography“ (gönül çoğrafyamız) by a series of publications (Yaman Coşar 2020). According to Ali Erbaş, head of Diyanet, „our heart-geography mustn’t be limited to Anatolia“ – reasoning on the mythic example of the cross-border siblinghood established between Muslim refugees (muhacir) from Mecca and their helpers (ensar) from Medina [Yathrib] in the Qur’anic text (“Bizim gönül coğrafyamız sadece Anadolu ile sınırlı olmamalı”, 2019). Besides, the Coordinatorship of Public Diplomacy (Kamu Diplomasisi Kordinatörlüğü) and many actors more are involved. The projects of these sibling districts in the Balkans are typically endowed by TİKA, which finances and establishes contacts to Turkish holdings from the construction sector, which stand behind the renovations of bridges and other monuments. These holdings often have close and even kinsmanlike ties to the ruling party.

One of the countless monuments renovated by Turkish officials in the Western Balkans. The picture shows the türbe/turbe (mausoleum) of the Pulti/Pultić family in the Montenegrin coastal town of Ulcinj/Ulqin. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in July 2018.

This simple analysis of the figurative kinship metaphores with their religio-mythical backend behind the acronyms TDBB, YTB, and other actors‘ activities reveals that the new Turkish institutions – borrowing from Mary Douglas‘, George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s approaches to conceptual metaphores – think and live by in family metaphores (Douglas 1986; Lakoff & Johnson 1980; Dündar 2018; Sirman 2005; 2008): their way of thinking and living-by shows that the general understanding of the populus, envisioned as an enlarged family, appears to have (re-)gained expansive, cross-border aspirations.[12] Moreover, the entanglements of the building sector and the Turkish neo-populists‘ cultural parlance show that the fields of culture, religion, and economy are deeply intertwined in the AKP regime’s investments in the Balkans‘ market of public opinions (Hansen 2017; Edwards & Colborne 2019). This context will be described in more detail in the next section.

7. The role of ‚Renommiergeld‘ in a culturally annotated economy

The entanglement of culture, economy and neo-populism deserves a deeper look. Historian Dubravka Stojanović sees “economic embitterment” as a crucial element of populism (Stojanović 2017), while the economist Dani Rodrik distinguishes two types of authoritarian populism:

There are essentially two schools of thought on the drivers of populism, one that focuses on culture and another that focuses on economics. The cultural perspective sees Trump, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing nativist political parties in continental Europe as the consequence of a deepening rift in values between social conservatives and social liberals, with the former having thrown their support behind xenophobic, ethno-nationalist, authoritarian politicians. The economic perspective sees populism as the result of economic anxieties and insecurities, themselves due in turn to financial crises, austerity, and globalisation.

(Rodrik 2019)

If populism is rooted in econcomic misery, Rodrik argues, the remedy is easily identifiable, and populism can be challenged by counter-populist economic policies — as campaigns for economic reforms and redistribution of wealth in Latin America demonstrate. In the second case, where “it is rooted in culture and values, however, there are fewer options”, Rodrik asserts (Rodrik 2019). Pierre Rosanvallon identifies protectionsim as the general economic policy of populism, which is more profoundly intertwined with the idea of national sovereignty, dignity and the security of the people – and the reason why the economy in populist politics is highly politicized (Rosanvallon2020).

Likewise, the Turkish economy and its investments in the Balkans are a controversially discussed topic: the comparatively low share of Turkish investment on the Bosnian market – when it comes to real figures, as compared to other Balkan countries – regularly seem to be outplayed by Turkey’s symbolical and cultural investments (Thumann 2015; Hake 2019). Drawing from Rodrik’s distinction, Turkey’s appeal and interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina can be assigned as a culture and value rooted, cross-border populism – yet, the picture is more complicated, for more than one populus (and their sovereignty, dignity, and security) are involved as stakeholders.

Culture, in the given context, mostly means religiously gilded Ottoman identity and civilizationalism as the conceptual ground for cross-border siblinghood, which is why the most visible vehicles of the Turkish cultural focus are symbolical investments in the religious and post-Ottoman sphere; the applied language is, as demonstrated, characterized by tropes of kinship and the belief system. Not only in the public opinion on the Bosnian street — „they get factories, we get mosques“, is a frequent commonplace in the Bosnian street — this cultural-religious overlap in the Turkish investments are perceived as rather „declarative“. This is how Zijad Bećirović, the director of the Ljubljana based International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, commented on Turkey’s relatively higher investments in Serbia and other countries – as compared to Bosnia-Herzegovina (Halimović 2016). Yet, that doesn’t mean that the Turkish investments in BiH are nominal: the difficulty in appreciating the „real value“ of these investments derives from the fact that they are not directly measurable or convertible into the real figures of fiat money.

Two main items of trade are at stake on the market between the unequal trading partners: the prestige or renommiergeld (Mauss 1966), as a rent from the Turkish investments, and the security promise by a supposedly strong Turkish state for Bosnian Muslims, who fell the main victim group of the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Since the investments in the building sector are „hard“ monetary investments of fiat money, whereas the rent – the renommiergeld – is of „soft“, symbolic nature, this means that there is a general, but indirect convertibility of the hard and soft currencies at work. 

The rent for the (Turkish) investors is mainly achieved through the production of tradeable pictures, videos, public opinions and political support. One primary example of these symbolical-cultural investments was the Turkish decision to donate 13 million Convertible Marks (KM; 6,5 million Euros) to Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to complete the construction of the Islamic Community’s new headquarters in Sarajevo – whose previous main donor was Libya’s former autocrat Muammar Gaddafi (Turska donira 13 miliona KM, 2017). This is only one amongst countless of other activities with a cultural-religious shape conveyed by Turkish actors, as a glance at the homepage of TİKA reveals: a five volume edition entitled „Oeuvres of Prestige/Islam in the Balkans“ (Prestij Eserler/Balkanlardaİslam) can be downloaded and approve of the value that official Turkish public diplomats pay to these symbolic investments (Kafkasyalı 2016). Interestingly, the word ‚prestige‘ (prestij) is used here not as an implicit, tacit category, ascribed by the recipients of the benefactor to the latter: here, the donors (or renovators) themselves — TİKA — certificate to themselves the prestige and Renommiergeld.

7.1 Turkish spiritual intelligence and its Muslim competitors

Most of these activities partly follow a logic which Damir Rudnyckyj has called a „spiritual intelligence“ (Rudnyckyj 2010): there are certain goods labled by Islamic trade marks that simply cannot be traded by non-Muslim traders. Unlike European actors – who neither have a rooted interest in trading goods with an Islamic label, nor would they even have the needed credibility to do so – Turkey and its Islamic competitors (mostly hailing from the Arabian peninsula and Iran) can and do use Islamic labels, as two of the subsequent pictures will show. Turkey’s unique selling point amongst these „Islamic traders“ therein is the Ottoman label (Porter 1998). In reverse, Turkey is perceived as an Islamic and post-Ottoman actor in the Bosnian street. The above-mentioned donation for the finalization of the halted construction of BiH’s Islamic Community’s headquarters can be seen as an epitome of this trading rationale.

Turkish actors, upon completion of numerous renovations and restaurations, can perceive of themselves as of the tenants of the great Ottoman-Islamic civilization. Moreover, they see themselves in the role of the protector and quasi-sovereign of Bosnia’s Muslims as part of the „Ottoman heritage“, as reflected in the words of Hüseyin Aydın, the general director of Turkey’s investment bank Ziraat and president of the Union of Turkish Banks (Türkiye Bankalar Birliği): when Ziraat chose Sarajevo as its main seat for its Balkan investments in 2012, the Turkish newspaper Milliyet quoted him: 

We appreciate the old Ottoman geography a lot. We plan to become permanent, competitive and proactive here“. 

(„Ziraat’ten Bosna’da büyük atılım“, 2012)

The emotional and religious bond, the personal ties to the partner party SDA, and the administrative conditions of Bosnia offered a fertile ground and an ideal landscape for the goal of Turkey’s positive nation branding (cf. Tecmen 2018), as the Ziraat bank’s general director heralded: 

But here, also given that it is part of Turkey’s capital, this will be a bank which will demonstrate its independent, own proactive power.

(„Ziraat’ten Bosna’da büyük atılım“, 2012)

Bosnia and its Muslim population’s sometimes ridculing, but oftentimes positive feedback offer Turkey the opportunity to perceive itself as a grand global player with a positive image. Besides the vast amount of „good news“ from Bosnia in the media, this self-perception is also reflected in the urban landscape of Sarajevo: No visitor, on their way from the airport to downtown Sarajevo, can miss the Ziraat bank’s building at the radial highway Zmaja od Bosne. However, not far from it, the visitor will perceive Turkey’s Islamic competitors‘ monuments of renommiergeld (pictures below).

The Saudi-Arabian investor of the shopping mall Sarajevo City Center built its own monument of Renommiergeld in front of its investment. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2016.
A gift by the state of Qatar, including a monument of Renommiergeld at its entrance: the enlarged Gazi Husrev-beg Library, Sarajevo. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2016.
One of the numerous Turkish Renommiergeld-plaques in Sarajevo. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2016.

An explicite example of Turkish spiritual intelligence is the so-called „convoy of divine abundance“ (Bereket konvoyu): a convoy of lorries, sent by the AKP-governed city district of Istanbul-Bayrampaşa throughout the past years (starting from 2005) during the fasting month of Ramadan to the Balkans („Bereket konvoyu“, 2015). Fasting – contradictorily enough – was above all staged as open-air mass eating events on public squares: between Greece and Croatia, the Turkish benefactors would stop in numerous small towns and big cities to offer free iftar (fast breaking) meals to the local population. The leading, very literally cross-border slogan on the lorries (as the abundant Turkish media coverage shows), was „siblinghood doesn’t know borders“ (kardeşlik sınır tanımaz). The coverage on the homepage of the Bayrampaşa municipality reveals that the Turkish convoy comprised three lorries, three minibuses, two buses, one car, a crew of 75 volunteers, and an additional outside broadcast van. This composition clearly points to the convoy’s purpose of producing pictures and film footage as Renommiergeld – to be re-invested, both on the domestic (Turkish) media market of public opinions („Bereket konvoyu“, 2015; Homepage of Türk Dünyası Belediyeler Birliği), as well as abroad.

7.2 The Turkish ağabey and the Bosniak kardeş as uneven trading partners

Bosniaks, in contrary, are rarely in the position to proactively donate or even sell their gifts or goods on the Turkish market, since their poor economic situation wouldn’t allow for that: in a Maussian sense, the Bosniak „siblings“ nearly always figure as the recipients of the gift (i.e., of the divine abundance/bereket), or the helped muhacir – and never in the position of the donors or the helping ensar (cf. Mauss 1966). Congruent with this asymmetric relationship between the donor (the helper) and the gifted (the helped) is the inherent, yet mostly implicit distinction between „elder brother“ (ağabey) and „younger brother“ (kardeş) under the Turkish umbrella word kardeş(-lik): while in itself, it is unspecific about gender and age, Turkish speakers differentiate between ağabey (elder brother), abla (elder sister) and kardeş (younger sibling) when the relationship is specified and personalized (Delaney 1991).[13] Bosniaks in Turkey, when asked about their own perception of Turkey’s new role in the Balkans, sometimes were very critical about the „hijacking“ of their cause by the ruling party, which they oppose and reject. Other interlocutors, however, have told me that „of course, Turkey is their elder brother“ (Interview in Bayrampaşa, 2015).

Whether free iftar meals, collective circumcision ceremonies for Balkan boys by Turkish circumcisers (sünnet şölenleri) (cf. „Bosna Hersek’te toplu sünnet düğünü“, 2015), renovations and constructions of mosques, hammams, fountains, public squares, bridges or similar activities (Schad 2018, 2019): Turkish public diplomats‘ activities are disproportionally often religiously embellished. These activities are not pursued solely for altruistic reasons or for „their ‘magical value’, which Mauss saw was ’still present in sadaqa’“, as other authors have interpreted other forms of gift exchange under Islamic auspices (Henig 2019; Mittermaier 2013; 2019, Maurer 2001). The gift, as Mauss had it, involves and demands reciprocity. In the case of Turkish-Bosnian cross-border neo-populism, a „mixed economy“ is at play between AKP-governed, Turkish municipalities and their Bosnian counterparts: spiritual categories are distinctively present – while they are blended and traded together with the „hard currencies“ of the capitalist market of public opinions. This means that the gifted („the invested“, „the helped ones“) are expected to deliver, in return, to their donor with consent and supportive public opinions. This shall be elaborated in the next chapter.

8. Tribute to the sultan: the disinvitation of Orhan Pamuk by Sarajevo

Sometimes, the Turkish-Bosniak trading partners on the market of public opinions encounter „market failure“, which is due to the informational asymmetry that eventually occurs when unequal stakeholders from different socio-linguistic backgrounds, motivated by their different respective interests – the figurative „elder brothers“ and „younger siblings“ – interact. Three of these examples reveal the illiberal character of the main proponents of the Turkish-Bosniak siblinghood trope, which makes these trade arrangements crucial for the discussion of the possibilities and limits of mayoral coalitions in the age of illiberal neo-populism. The first example is a large scale corruption scandal with the presidential palace at its center in 2013; the second example revolves around the over-exploitation of the trope of the „conquest of the hearts“ by Turkish officials and their partners, and the third example is the speakable, Bosniak genocide of Srebrenica in 1995, and the unspeakable, Armenian genocide in 1915/16. The latter communicative conflict between speakability and anathema in Bosnia and in Turkey is also responsible for the disinvitation of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk by the city council of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in 2018.

8.1 Corruption in the palace

A disappointment of the elder Turkish brother by their non-obeying Bosnian siblings occurred in the winter 2013/2014, just following two difficult challenges for the illiberal ruling party in Turkey: in June, the Gezi protests by Turkey’s then thriving civil society had threatened the firm position of the regime; and in fall, the Fethullahçıs, the regime’s formerly closely allied Islamic movement around the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen known as the Gülen movement or Gülenists in English, leaked a large scale corruption scandal. That leak was not only a face threat, but also incriminating against president Erdoğan and his family personally. But above all, it meant the most serious crisis to the prestige of the president and his family in the public opinions: the AKP had originally won the elections precisely because they presented themselves as uninvolved in the previous corruption scandals in Turkey in the late 1990s. Two phrases in the public opinions shall help to illustrate the meaningfulness of that scandal.

It was the flashpoint for the widely known phrases in Turkish „as if explaining something to Bilal“ (Bilal’e anlatır gibi [anlatmak]) and „Emine Erdoğan’s handbag“ (Emine Erdoğan’ın çantası) : the Gülenist leak released a phone call, reportedly between president Erdoğan and his son Bilal. In the leaked conversation, both are panicking for allegedly hoarded Dollars in their family home, just following the confisation of 4,5 million Dollars in shoeboxes. This criminal investigation eventually hinted and lead to the president’s personal involvement. In the leaked phone conversation, Bilal speaks helplessly and maladroit to his father — which is why the phrase „as if explaining something to Bilal“ soon became omnipresent in the then still comparatively uncensored Social Media. Yet, this phrase was not only a mockery of Bilal Erdoğan personally: it was an implicit, constant and popular reminder that there was a corruption scandal. The phrase „Emine Erdoğan’s handbag„, for instance, was commenting on a picture of president Erdoğan’s wife’s handbag. Her luxury handbag was affordable for the horrendous price of 49,995.00 US-Dollars, as Social Media users figured out. Both phrases were officially „forbidden“ by an Istanbul Court on 19. June 2020 („Bilal’e anlatır gibi anlatmak“).

Screenshot from ekşisözlük, one of the world’s oldest Online Social Networks and the most voluminous collection of contemporary Turkish phraseology. The entries on Bilal’e anlatır gibi anlatmak and Emine Erdoğan’ın çantası are not accessible any more from Turkey. Screenshot taken by Thomas Schad on 9 July 2021.

This scandal and serious backlash in the public opinions also reached a wider, international public, and lead the AKP-regime to mount a cross-border campaign (Özkan 2016), whose goal it was to conserve the leader’s face: Erdoğan’s charisma is, to a great deal, due to his reputation as the global Muslim leader, especially after the „Davos incident“ in 2009 (Tait 2009). To that end, the ruling party and its affiliated organizations abroad tried to break the spiritual mobilizing force of the Gülen movement — at once a political force — which had turned into a serious adversary. BiH, amongst many other countries, had been a stronghold of the Gülenists, starting from the late 1990s. Hence, BiH’s Islamic Community (IZ) was ordered to pray for the political well-being of Erdoğan in the Friday sermons (hutbe) by representatives of the regime. Erdoğan’s whereabouts were repeatedly equaled with the existential question of Turkey’s fate – and with it, that of the future survival of the Bosniaks and Bosnia, as the embedded Turkish gutter paper Yeni Akit titled two years later: „If Turkey falls, Bosnia will fall, too“ (Kutlu 2016).

Back in 2014, the order to pray for president Erdoğan was conveyed by the Turkish journalist and Balkans watchdog Ayhan Demir (Yeni Akit; Demir 2014a; 2014b). When the IZ shied away from the order and tried to stay neutral — arguing that they didn’t want to interfere in a foreign country’s domestic affairs over a corruption scandal — Ayhan Demir reacted with a repeated order, and an angry threat: he countered that there was no corruption scandal at all, and reminded the younger siblings that „every Bosniak must accept Turkey as their home“. Likewise, as Demir explained, he didn’t see Sarajevo or Skopje as places abroad, neither – but as his home:

A prove of what the Balkans mean to us is expressed in the most beautiful way in what Ağabey İbrahim Tenekeci said years ago. While he would say „Ağabey, I am travelling abroad, blessings be upon“, when on his way to London, Paris or Berlin – on our trips to Skopje or Sarajevo, he (sic!) would say, as if coming home: „I am going to Skopje / to Sarajevo“.

(Demir, 2014a)

The threat came with a quote of Bosnia’s war time Muslim president Alija Izetbegović, which happens to be, at the same time, a well-known quote of Martin Luther King:

If god permits, these difficult days will be left behind very soon. And the day when all this is behind us, the only thing which we will remember will not be the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends!

(Demir, 2014a)

Obviously, Demir was pondering here with Turkey’s possible withdrawal from its security promise to Bosnia’s Muslims. As the Bosnian newspaper BH Dani reports, students from the AKP-affiliated International University Sarajevo (IUS) – which is the rivaling institution of the Gülenists‘ International Burch University, in direct proximity in Sarajevo-Ilidža – held their prayers for Erdoğan in Sarajevo’s Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. Although this caused mixed, mostly negative public reactions in Bosnia, the IZ’s resistance was broken (Kahrović-Posavljak 2014).

President Erdoğan on an election poster of his party AKP in February 2016 in Istanbul Üsküdar, one of the party’s strongholds. Erdoğan celebrates the conquest of Istanbul and often makes positive allusions of Ottoman sultans. Picture by Thomas Schad.
8.2 The „conquest of the hearts“

The second example of „market failure“ is the negative publicity that the mayor of the north Bosnian municipality of Sanski Most (affiliated with the AKP’s partner party SDA) earned due to the overexploitation of the narrative of Ottoman conquest by Turkish public diplomats in 2015 („Sanski Most: Kako je SDA obilježila pobjedu Turske nad Bosnom“, 2014). The embedded Turkish media often uses the terms conquest/to conquer (fatih/fethetmek) when describing the return of Turkey to the Balkans – a notion that was also used by the district of Bayrampaşa in their report on the above described „convoy of divine abundance“. According to the report’s title, the convoy „has conquered the hearts in the Balkans“ (‚Bereket Konvoyu‘ Balkanlar’da gönülleri fethetti) – which alludes not only to the trope of territorial conquest by the Ottomans: in AKP-parlance, the Ottoman conquest is regularly depicted as a conquest of the hearts by the gift of Islam; thus, the conquest is presented as the positive starting point of the Bosniak-Turkish siblinghood. It is the recognizable, identical trope as in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s „geography of the hearts“ (gönül çoğrafyası, cf. chapter 6). In multireligious and multiethnic BiH, however, the Ottoman conquest is an ambivalent and highly sensitive topic, and not everybody dreams of being „reconquered“. The trope of Ottoman conquest and the complex topic of conversion to Islam are rivaled by the counter-narratives of the conquest by the sword and the loss of Bosnian independence, as Christian Balkan nationalists, secular Bosnian Bosniaks, and even a considerable share of Turkish Kemalists and leftists would have it. While the Turkish styled, glorious story-telling of the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia usually goes unnoticed by the Bosnian media, it caused indignation in 2015, when Turkey raised a commemorative monument at the historical castle of Sanski Most, in honour of the Ottoman conquest and the Battle of Gallipoli:

„It is inappropriate to organize a commemorative celebration for the members of an occupatory army, especially at the location of Dnoji Kamengrad, where in 1463, Ottoman and Bosnian soldiers died for the imperial interests of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government has raised a monument for the Ottoman soldiers, while our representatives didn’t do the same for the Bosnian kingdom. The subservient behaviour of the Party of Democratic Action towards Turkey has transgressed every limit“, said Enes Kurtović, member of the committee of Naša Stranka (a political party, TS) Sanski Most.

(„Sanski Most: Kako je SDA obilježila pobjedu Turske nad Bosnom„, 2014)

As already mentioned, the probably most prominent reason why Turkey enjoys a positive image amongst some Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) is the fact that it is the economically and militarily strongest Muslim country in the region. Millions of European Muslims had found refuge in the course of Ottoman decline and its aftermaths, and especially the Bosniak population of the Serbian and Montenegrin Sandžak region maintain family bonds to their emigrated relatives in Turkey (Schad 2015). Thus, it is often perceived as the „second motherland“ and safe haven for Muslims. Turkey’s implicite and oftentimes explicite security promise is held in high esteem amongst Bosnia’s Muslims, as the memory and unsettled legacy of the past genocide of Srebrenica is still very fresh. Yet, even this topic can cause tensions and conflict between Bosnia and Turkey, when overexploited for political abuse.

8.3 Speakable and unspeakable genocides

Prior to the current (2020) all time low of the Turkey-EU relations, the authoritarian and anti-European character of Turkey’s ruling regime significantly started to tighten in 2017. In the same year, the notorious referendum, initiated by the ruling party, was won by the „Yes-Sayers“ (Evetçi): the parliamentary system would transform into a presidential system, thus strengthening the one-man-regime (tek adam rejimi) of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In its run-up, the referendum was accompanied by a heavy campaign amongst the European electorate, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, where significant Turkish populations live, including anti-European diatribes of unprecedented measure. In order to get their polls, Turkey changed and eased the electoral franchise. The regime’s strategy for getting the polls was grounded on aggressive, polarizing, anti-European rhetorics.

When European politicians, consequently, decided not to offer a stage to AKP politicians, the populist Erdoğan openly compared „the Dutch“ to the slaughterers of Srebrenica, and he accused both „the Dutch“ and „the Germans“ of Nazi-methods (Henley 2017; Schad 2019, p. 167 ff.). In BiH, where Germany and other European countries enjoy a positive image and count for the most desireable destinations for emigration, this instrumentalization and confrontation was not applauded. More importantly, even one of the most prominent survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, Hasan Nuhanović, repudiated the exploitation and instrumentalization of the genocide by Turkey explicitly (Nuhanović 2017; Schad 2019).

The fact that Turkish politicians regularly conjure up the genocide against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica doesn’t mean that they are convinced and credible defenders of genocide victims in general: they have a selective understanding of what a genocide is. The Armenian genocide, for instance, is anathema to the AKP regime. Voicing it usually results in furious reactions by the regime leader, including even more serious, diplomatic crises abroad. An internationally less prominent example for the regime’s outrage against voicing the Armenian genocide is meaningful in the context of the Turkish-Bosnian sibling arrangements: it is the causa Orhan Pamuk from 2018. Pamuk, one of Turkey’s best known contemporary writers, Nobel laureate and a decidedly liberal voice, was suggested to be declared Sarajevo’s official honorary citizen by the Sarajevan bookshop and publisher Buybook. But even though the jubilee was already informed about the award, the city mayor made it „unhappen“, as the British Guardian reported, and idsinvited Pamuk:

“The council commission explanation was that Orhan Pamuk did nothing or almost nothing for the city of Sarajevo. Some members from the ruling party estimated that awarding Mr Pamuk might cause the anger of Turkey’s current government. They used this opportunity to send a message to Pamuk … that he is not welcome in Sarajevo,” said Uzunović.

(Flood 2018)

Pamuk was (and is) a problem to the AKP-regime. He had repeatedly and publicly acknowledged the Armenian genocide, which he was accused and trialed for, previously. Pamuk disrespected the imperative “thou shalt not speak of the Armenians“, because in Erdoğan’s firm opinion, “Muslims do not, cannot commit genocide“; his „forefathers didn’t commit genocide“ („Erdoğan: Ecdadım Soykırım Yapmadı„, 2009). As the risk of voicing the Armenian genocide by a famous Turkish writer in Sarajevo would complicate the regime’s self-promotion abroad, the AKP-ruled, Turkish „siblings“ intervened, caused the Pamuk’s disinvitation, and silenced the inconvenient topic.

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.)

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).

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) Illiberal city diplomacy: Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and the unfolding of cross-border neo-populism, Inkubator Metamorph, 31 July. Available at: (Accessed: Date of access).

10. Acknowledgements

I thank Serhan Şahin and Eva Schmidt for their patience and valuable comments on draft versions of this paper.

11. Footnotes & References


1. It is important to mention that there are also town twinnings between Russian and Bosnian-Serb municipalities, which for reasons of length can’t be analyzed in this contribution.

2. 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.

3. The Central Anatolia Region borders five other regions: the Marmara Region, the Black Sea Region, the Aegean Region, the Mediterranean Region, and the Eastern Anatolian Region. The seventh region, the Southeastern Anatolia Region, stretches alongside most of the Syrian and a small stretch of the Iraqi border.

4. Megakent or Mega şehir are notions frequently in use in Turkish urban sociology as translations of megacity.

5. Very recently, the former MP Berhan Şimşek from the CHP was brought on charges for his public statement on television that „the vali is a militant, the kaymakam is a militant, the judges are militants (…)“. In a report by the independent news site T24, he was quoted with the self-defense „the emperor is naked“: he was just stating the obvious („Bakanlıktan „vali militan, kaymakam militan“, 2021; „CHP’li Berhan Şimşek: Valilerin iktidarın değil, devletin valisi“, 2021).

6. Türmen is a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights and a member of the party CHP.

7. It is noteworthy from a non-Turkish nativist speaker’s perspective to consider the partly positive connotation of the word milliyetçilik (nationalism) in Turkish. In my experience, there are two diametrically opposed understandings of that word: the one is critical and similar to the meaning of e.g. Nationalismus in the German language or nacionalizam in Jezik*, where nationalism is widely considered as the herd of problems, conflicts, and intolerance. The second understanding is positive, and even declared one of the leading principles by Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk], called „Fatherturk Principles“ (Atatürk İlkeleri). In the emblematic symbol of the Six Arrows (Altı Ok), which still is the symbol of the Republican People’s Party CHP, Milliyetçilik is represented by one of the six arrows, the other five being Cumhuriyetçilik/Republicanism, Halkçılık/Populism, Laiklik/Laicism, Devletçilik/Statism, and İnkılapçılık (also: devrimcilik)/Reformism or Revolutionism. To the eye and ear which is accustomed to the first understanding, only, it can appear challenging to understand that in Turkish, nationalism is often considered a virtue.

8. Culture is here an emic category: it is not the researcher’s (my) understanding of culture that it can be described as a fixed set of attributes or behaviour. It rather reflects my interlocutors‘ language, who abundantly use the notion of kültür (culture), kültürlü („with culture“, „having culture“ or „being cultivated“) and kültürsüz („without culture“, „having no culture“ or „being uncultivated“). For instance, I was told by a Bosniak Muhacir car driver in Istanbul’s traffic jam, „Bunlar kültürsüz„: These have no culture — meaning, the others in the traffic were „uncultivated“, in his eyes. Compared to the Balkans, where similar traffic simply doesn’t exist, or even Europe — where I came from — they would know nothing about proper, „cultivated“ behaviour in the urban car traffic.

9. While şehir means ‚city‘, this does not mean that the members of a hometown association called Malatyalılar („Malatyans“) necessarily originate from the city of Malatya: villagers often identify with the closest urban conglomeration, and hence, ‚Malatya‘ can also mean the province or land around Malatya, in everyday speech refered to as the memleket. Fittingly, this Arabic loan word originally means „realm“ (Cf. Danilenko 2020).

10. This emblematic year (2023) was chosen, because it marks the Turkish Republic’s 100th birthday.

11. An alternative word for civilization, which is considered a „real Turkish“ (Öztürkçe) word, would be uygarlık. The latter notion was prefered especially by earlier, purist Kemalists, whose aim it was to „purify“ modern Turkish from as many Arabic and Persian loan words as possible.

12. The striving for pan-Turkist or pan-Islamist outreach is nothing new, at all, cf. Zürcher 2004, pp. 127 ff.

13. A number of other, more specific words are in use, like kız kardeş (sister), bacı (sister/elder sister), hemşire (sister like in nurse), erkek kardeş (brother / younger brother), birader (brother like in „buddy“ or „bro“), etc.


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