The significance of Balkans for Ottoman and Turkish history automatically becomes evident given the fact that Ottoman became a state in real terms, gained power and expanded through conquests in Balkans between 1360- 1444 and the conquest of Istanbul in 1453. Ottoman State’s establishment and rooting began in the period between 1299-1448, lasted around 150 years, and a large part took place in the Balkans. Ottoman State opening up to the world with a new identity and philosophy as Turkish Republic, again had its origins in the Balkans for Party of Union and Progress declared Second Constitutionalist Period here. Macedonia was the center of this movement, and generated many leaders for both the Party of Union and Progress, and Republic. Balkan nationalism, a political movement underlying all these events is of prime importance.
Although Balkan lands were lost in 1912, Balkans continued to influence Turkey in every respect. Around half a million Muslims were slaughtered by Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks during the Balkan War, and another half million were expelled and forced to seek asylum in Thrace and Anatolia. These migrants joined those who had arrived between 1856-78 from Crimea, Caucasus and Balkans, both reviving past sufferings of Ottoman people and accelerating the transformation of everrising Muslim nationalism into Turkish nationalism.
First center of Turkish nationalism in Balkans was Thessaloniki, and magazines as ‘Genç Kalemler’ (Young Pens) were published there. Turkish nationalist writer, poet and politician Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924) was initially active here. It is apparent that Turkish nationalism was both a reaction and at the same time a defense against Serbian, Greek and Bulgarian nationalism. Again, Balkan War resulted in a population exchange. Limited exchange held with Bulgarians was followed by the Turkish-Greek population exchange which took place between 1923-26 and affected two million people. These exchanges which brought Anatolian Christians to Balkans and Balkan Muslims to Thrace and Anatolia, increased populations of ethnic-religious majorities in respective countries, and consequently made these groups more powerful. Migration agreements signed between Turkish government and Balkan governments in 1930s deepened ethnic polarization. However in 1930s, a oneway migration from Balkans to Turkey took place which increased the Turkish- Muslim population in Anatolia, and to an extent compensated human casualties in the First World War and War of Independence.
It is faulty to think that nationalism triggered by Balkan War emerged as a result of population exchange, and was limited to Muslims and Christians. Macedonian Slavs (majority Bulgarians) were sent to Bulgaria, and Greeks living in Bulgaria-including those who had been living on Black Sea coastal towns for thousands of years-migrated to Greece. Romania who joined the war against Bulgaria in 1913 was rewarded with two districts of Southern Dobruja (Silistra, Pazarcik), and populated these districts with Wallachs living in Balkans and particularly Macedonia. As a result, although Muslims which had been the majority on those lands for centuries emigrated to Turkey, a large number of Muslim-Turks continued to live where they deemed homeland. Wallachs settled Savaşlain those two districts were exchanged with Bulgarian population in Constanza and Tulca districts of Northern Dobruja under Romanian rule.
Balkan Wars put an end to the Balkan Union established during Ottoman rule, and religious and cultural tolerance on which Union had been based on. As mentioned earlier, tolerance was not only mutual between Muslims and non-Muslims but also between various Christian sectarian groups. Croat-Serb (Catholic-Orthodox) tension which became more apparent at the end of 1912 Balkan Wars turned into a bloody battle in 1990s, and following the Catholic massacre in Vukovar, Serbs living in Krajina region in Croatia were expelled. However both countries did not refrain from waging a deadly war against Muslims between 1992-95, the Bosnians with whom they shared the same language.
In Balkans live 11-13 million Ottoman Muslims comprised of Turks, Albanians, Bosnians, Pomaks and Wallachs or their lineage. Muslims are the majority in Albania and Kosovo, and today there are around one million Muslims living in Bulgaria, 300 thousand in Serbia, 150 thousand in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 100 thousand in Romania, and 25 thousand in Croatia and Montenegro. This means, despite massacres, forced or agreed migrations during Balkan Wars, former Ottomans or preferably Turks, still comprise 8-14 percent of Balkan population of nearly 50 millions (except Romania), and due to kinship and patriotism they still maintain their bonds with several million people of Balkan origin who migrated to Turkey. In return, there are around 15 thousand Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians in Turkey.
Balkans went through major political fluctuations after 1912-13. At the end of the war, Southern Macedonia (with Thessaloniki as center) was handed over to Greece, Northern Macedonia (with Skopje as center) to Serbia, and a small part of the country to Bulgaria. In the period between first and second world wars, England, Germany and Italy had more influence on the region, and the competition between them prevented radical nationalist regimes ruling in Balkan countries from clashing. The balance emerged as a result of this competition was disrupted when Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941-42, and Italy invaded Albania. Both Bulgaria and Romania made alliance with Germany.
In conclusion, Turkey is undoubtedly the strongest and greatest Balkan country. There are numerous strategic, economical, cultural and demographic elements for Turkey to have influence over Balkans. After all, Balkans should set the sufferings, resentments of the history and vengeance aside, and look to future from a novel, humanistic and peaceful perspective. After century-long bitter experiences since the last Balkan War, it is sound to expect that coming centuries will be peaceful with tolerance and fellowship as was the case under Ottoman rule. If Turkey achieves this goal, it will earn a great reputation both in the region and the world, and confidence and economic growth will be further ensured.
Article is based on the book ‘Ottoman Legacy in the Balkans and Nationalism’ published by Timaş Publications, with special permission of the author.