Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got a rebuke in Paris two days ago in his attempt to reset his country’s relations with the EU. But today (7 January) Bulgaria’s PM Boyko Borissov offered him a consolation – a probably opened the door to an alternative Turkish plan.
Borissov visited Istanbul on the occasion of the re-opening of the Iron Church, a Bulgarian Orthodox temple in the Golden Horn in Istanbul, after 7 years of rehabilitation. The Iron Church, also known as St. Stephan Church, is unique in the world, its core construction being of iron. This technique was necessary due to the unstable terrain. The metal parts, weighting 500 tons, were paid by the Bulgarian state freed from the Ottoman Empire, produced in Austria and imported by train. The Church opened in 1898.
The main rehabilitation was made by a Turkish firm, and most of the cost (around the equivalent of €3.5 million) was borne by the Turkish state. Bulgaria contributed €390,000.
The inauguration of the rehabilitated church was attended by Borissov, Erdoğan and Turkish PM Binali Yıldırım, the Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit, the Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, as well as by many representatives of the Istanbul elite and of the Bulgarian diaspora.
Speaking at the ceremony, Erdoğan said that Bulgaria holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU and that the fact of the opening of the rehabilitated church sends a message to the international community that Istanbul and Turkey show to the world how different cultures and religions can coexist.
He also made noises advising today’s Europe against Islamophobia.
Erdoğan also mentioned that St. Stephan’s was one of several churches of other religions Turkey was helping to rehabilitate.
The Turkish President also reminded that there are many mosques in Bulgaria which need rehabilitation. He said he was aware that rehabilitation was ongoing in the Sofia mosque and said he would be happy to attend the inauguration once the works will conclude.
Erdoğan also conveyed the message that the Ottoman Empire had been tolerant with peoples ranging from Bulgaria to today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that “bad souvenirs” from the past should not cast a shadow over future relations.
The latter statement is disputable. Ottoman domination has kept European peoples, including Bulgaria’s, away from the European civilization, for several centuries.
Since AKP became the dominant force in Turkey more than 10 years ago, this country has had several agendas with the EU – from the historic will to join the EU, to doctrines about asserting the Turkish influence in the EU via its diaspora and the Ottoman Empire inheritance.
Erdoğan visited Paris on Friday with the announced expectation to reset Turkey’s relations with Europe. But French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear that Turkey should renounce its ambition of joining the EU and settle instead for a looser “partnership”.
Apparently Erdoğan didn’t take this as an offence. The message from Paris was in fact a confirmation, needed to motivate Erdoğan’s electorate, about the need to pursue a different agenda with the EU.
Borissov came in handy at the church inauguration.
If Turkey would join the EU, EU leaders would have to listen at their regular summits Erdoğan lecturing them for hours just about everything.
Except Borissov, it is difficult to imagine who else could stand such a humiliation.
And since Turkey was told it cannot join the EU, Ankara will carve its zone of influence in the EU much deeper than generally assumed. From the perspective of the Turkish nostalgics of the Ottoman Empire, rehabilitating a couple of Orthodox churches against thousands of mosques is not a bad plan, to start with.