At Rally in Bosnia, Erdogan Flexes His Muscles as Strongman of the Muslim World

Thousands of European diaspora Turks traveled to Sarajevo to hear Turkish president speak on Sunday, but his message was aimed at his electorate back home ahead of June 24 elections

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting supporters during his pre-election rally in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, May 20, 2018.
\ DADO RUVIC/ REUTERS

SARAJEVO – They traveled for hours to see just one man.

Thousands of Turks came from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and across the Balkans to the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital on Sunday, for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s only pre-election rally in Europe ahead of his country’s snap elections next month.

Chants of “We are Erdogan!” filled the air as his supporters waited outside Sarajevo’s Zetra Olympic Hall, wearing headbands bearing his name and waving flags of the president flanked by the Ottoman coat of arms.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have ruled Turkey for 15 years. This year’s snap presidential election was originally scheduled for November, before being brought forward to June 24 – a move some analysts argue was provoked by upcoming economic woes. If Erdogan is reelected, he’ll enjoy presidential powers unprecedented in Turkish history.

Political rally or soccer game? Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to his speech in Sarajevo, May 20, 2018.
Michael Colborne

Turkey’s Western allies have grown more concerned about Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism and his civil rights crackdowns – especially against the AKP’s former friends in the Gulen movement (the Islamist movement Erdogan blames for an attempted coup in 2016). Perhaps with this in mind, three European Union states with large Turkish populations – Austria, Germany and the Netherlands – barred the Turkish president from holding campaign rallies in their countries.

In interviews with the local media, Turkey’s ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haldun Koc, denied that Sunday’s event was an election rally, instead calling it a working visit to Bosnia. Erdogan, he added, was simply speaking at an assembly of a recently formed NGO for the Turkish diaspora in the Balkans. Assembly would be an understatement.

Pro-Erdogan songs blared on a loop while the Turkish president held a press conference a few minutes away with Bosnian co-leader Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) representative on the country’s tripartite presidency with whom Erdogan enjoys close ties. The two leaders discussed Turkish investment in a new highway in Bosnia, and Erdogan requested Izetbegovic’s aid in ending the Gülen “network in the Balkans” – a pointed reference to a Bosnian court’s refusal to extradite a Gülen-linked teacher to Turkey in April.

As thousands of fans waited, the head of an NGO for European diaspora Turks, Zafer Sirakaya, gave a rousing speech, praising Sarajevo as “the Jerusalem at the heart of Europe.”

But these issues didn’t seem to top the concerns of those present when the man they all came to see – “Sultan Erdogan,” as some attendees bellowed – finally took the stage after several hours of waiting. He praised the Turkish attendees who had traveled across Europe to see him, calling on them “to show their strength to the whole world.

“As European Turks, you have always supported us by a wide margin,” he told them. “Now we need your support again in the elections on June 24.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressing supporters in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, May 20, 2018.
KAYHAN OZER/AFP

‘The protector of Muslims’

Sirakaya and Erdogan’s warm words for Bosnia were not out of place. Turkey has traditionally played on historical associations between the Balkan country and its long Ottoman past and shared cultural ties. Nevertheless, observers Haaretz spoke with believe the rally was primarily targeted at voters back in Turkey.

Harun Karcic, the host of a foreign affairs show on Al Jazeera’s Sarajevo-based Balkans channel, said the rally was always meant more for Turkish domestic consumption.

“The rally is a podium for Turkish and AKP interests in Europe,” said Karcic. Not all Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) take kindly to Turkey’s self-anointed role as a “big brother” to Muslims and Turks in the Balkans, he noted.

Esref Kenan Rasidagic, a professor of political science at the University of Sarajevo, agreed that the rally was less for Bosnian and European audiences, and more for Turkish voters watching back home. Turkish PR in Bosnia was effective, he said, citing it as a possible reason why many Bosnians overestimate actual Turkish investment in their country. Some Bosnians, he added, did not see Turkey as a role model after Erdogan’s crackdown on civil rights.

Still, the message was heard loud and clear inside the arena. A Turk who had traveled from Austria said he had lived in Austria for decades, “but never felt at home.” Now home had come to him.

Some attendees Haaretz spoke with at the rally said they see Erdogan as a defender not just of European Turks but as a defender of all Muslims in Europe, protecting them from the rising tide of Islamophobia.

“He’s absolutely a defender of Muslims across Europe,” said Majda Catic, a 28-year-old Bosniak.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending the pre-election rally in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, May 20, 2018.
OLIVER BUNIC/AFP

Demir, 45, from Montenegro, said that Erdogan was the only global leader willing to stand up for the rights of Muslims in the Middle East – and, especially, to stop Israelis from “killing Palestinians.”

It’s a sentiment Erdogan made clear in his speech.

“If the world will surrender to these five members of the UN Security Council, we will perish,” Erdogan told the crowd, criticizing what he perceives as UN inaction over Israel’s actions in Gaza over the past several weeks.

“The persecutors are constantly patted on their backs, making the world unlivable for us. So we say: ‘Long live hell for all tyrants!’”

A handful of attendees took the message a step further. On two occasions, Haaretz heard chants “Katil srail” (“Israel [is a] killer!”) that lasted for a few seconds before fading away.

Invoking religion

Erdogan “wants to show domestic constituents he is still the leader of the Islamic world,” said Dimitar Bechev, a political scientist who focuses on Russian and Turkish influence in southeastern Europe.

It’s a role that Erdogan has consciously tried to build for himself in recent years. Hamdi Firat Buyuk, a freelance political analyst based in Sarajevo, said the call-and-response use of the takbir (“Allahu akbar!”) at Sunday’s rally only started being commonly heard at Erdogan rallies after the 2016 coup attempt.

Buyuk also noted that the language used by Izetbegovic was not particularly subtle when he invoked religion to sing Erdogan’s praises.

Izetbegovic said that “Erdogan was sent [to lead Turkey] by Allah” – a statement that Buyuk, as a fellow Muslim, said he found particularly offensive.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the pre-election rally in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, May 20, 2018.
\ DADO RUVIC/ REUTERS

Bosnia also faces elections this October, and many analysts predict that Izetbegovic’s own party is in for a rough time. Erdogan’s visit was an opportunity for him to flaunt foreign support ahead of the race.

Inside the arena, though, Erdogan didn’t sound like a man particularly concerned with what his critics think.

His words translated into Bosnian on large screens, Erdogan peppered his speech with potshots at his enemies – including the Gulen movement and the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“Some presidential candidates do not know what is going on in Turkey,” Erdogan said of his opponents. “These presidential candidates living in our country are like fish in the sea; they do not understand. When you take them out of the sea and throw them on the land, then they understand the value of the sea.

“On June 24, we will not only elect a president and lawmakers, but we will also make a choice for the next century of our country,” he told the crowd.

Erdogan soon left the stage and his fans filed outside, like a crowd leaving a soccer match.

He’d originally planned an evening stroll through Sarajevo’s old town and an iftar meal with Izetbegovic, breaking their Ramadan fast together. But his motorcade raced past a few minutes later, blaring “Dombra” – the infectiously catchy, pro-Erdogan tune that proclaims the Turkish president “the light of hope of millions” and “the leader awaited for years.”

With that, he sped away.

Fans of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waving Turkish flags before his rally in Sarajevo, Bosnia, May 20, 2018.
Michael Colborne