Turks tread tightrope over Bosnia: There are up to four million reasons why Ankara has to move carefully, writes Hugh Pope from Istanbul

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT HAS been a long time since New Bosnia was really new, a Bosnian immigrants' village from the 1950s of which only the name and a few old houses survive amid the mud and patchwork chaos of Istanbul's urban sprawl.

Finding a relic of the Bosnian presence was hard work between the sweatshops and concrete factory buildings, even in the cosy atmosphere of a small off-licence and roasted-nut shop named after the beleaguered Balkan state.

'Bosnia? Well, I just named it after the suburb. I don't know much about such things, but would they be the Muslim ones in Yugoslavia?' said the shopkeeper, Teslim Bozkurt. 'I do know some Bulgarians, would they do?'

Turkey's Bosnians have moved on from New Bosnia, mostly to more upmarket suburbs nearby, and until recently did not have a strong group identity. Indeed, despite Turkey's history and position on the eastern edge of the Balkans, only 16,000 Bosnian refugees from the latest fighting have come to Turkey, 1 per cent of the total.

But there is an extra edge in the indignation of Turks at Serbian atrocities. At least 10 million of Turkey's 60 million population descend from Balkan Turks and Muslims who fled here as Ottoman rule in Europe collapsed. Immigrant groups claim up to 4 million are of Bosnian parentage, but nobody really knows.

Turkish officials make much of the pressure to help the Bosnians from public opinion aroused by strong newspaper coverage of atrocities against fellow-Muslims and the hardships of 2,500 refugees sheltering in Turkish camps.

'Many of us still have relations there. Until recently we often talked by phone. They were just pleading for help,' said Zahit Gurdal, president of Turkey's Yugoslav Immigrants' Association whose grandparents fled the Serbs in 1928. Mr Gurdal's foundation has housed the other 13,500 refugees with relatives or volunteers. Mr Gurdal said few Bosnians had made it to Turkey because the route across the Balkans was too difficult and many wanted to go to the West.

One recent evening, the only visitor from Bosnia to the association's clubroom was a fighter on a fruitless search for his family. But behind walls decorated with Bosnian carpets, guitars and pictures of the Mostar bridge were blankets, bundles of clothes and mattresses, just in case.

Diplomats say Turkey's problems are in fact more strategic than real as Ankara tries to do what it can to prevent the Bosnian conflict from spilling over into a general Balkan war and to maintain its uneasy position between the Islamic and Western nations.

Turkey sets great store by its democratic, secular government, its special relationship with the West and its membership of Nato. But it is also Muslim and the government dares not allow itself to be outflanked either by its own vocal Islamic fundamentalist fringe or Iran's unabashed Islamic interventionism.

'We are trying to avoid a division of the world into Islamic and Christian camps,' said Ferhat Ataman, spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry. 'We are for the use of limited force, not by a single country or by a group of countries, but by the United Nations.'

Turkey will no doubt defend this position when President Turgut Ozal attends a meeting on Monday of eight members of the Islamic Conference Organisation (ICO) in Senegal. The ICO said in December that Muslim states might start arms supplies to Bosnia after 15 January if no diplomatic solution had been found.

Turkey has repeatedly offered to contribute a Turkish battalion to any UN force in Yugoslavia. It has been politely rebuffed due to a feeling that it has become a party to the conflict after warlike statements such as those from its armed forces chief about the need to bomb Serbian positions.

Comments