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Turkey and Saudi Arabia as Theo-political Actors in the Balkans: The Case of Bulgaria

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been increasingly utilizing religious services as an instrument in their foreign policies. One of the most recent examples of such active engagement can be seen in Bulgaria. While Turkey has used its shared history and culture with Muslims in Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia has focused more on spreading its national religious identity, Wahhabism Considering these increasing endeavors, this study will focus on how and why the two countries have become active players in the religious sphere in Bulgaria. The study will try to explain the motivations behind such activities and address the impact of this activism on Bulgarian society. The study also aims to reveal motivations, methods and instruments that were utilized in this competition.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia as Theo-political Actors in the Balkans
Bulgarian Muslims, the majority of whom are of Turkish origin, pray in a mosque in the southern Bulgarian village of Benkovski on April 3, 2017. DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP / Getty Images
 

Introduction

Bulgaria has been historically a strategic country that served as a center for Balkan politics. This status has given Sofia an attractive position for regional and global actors, which aim to play a role in the Balkans. While the country was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, the post-World War period changed this picture. Russia became a more influential actor in Bulgarian political and social life, however with its historic and ethnic ties, Turkey continued to play an important role. Following the end of the Cold War, Bulgaria has become the target of other international players. The European Union has played a great role in Bulgaria’s rapprochement with the West and this opened up the country to the influence of other actors, including Saudi Arabia. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have approached the country through its Muslim minority, who are largely ethnic Turks, actively engaging in the religious sphere amongst the Muslims in Bulgaria.

As a result, the country has witnessed an increase in religious activities of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the two leading powers in the Muslim world. The main reason for this is that 15 percent of Bulgaria’s population is Muslim. Despite them having different motivations, both Ankara and Riyadh consider Bulgaria as a sphere of influence. Both countries have realized that through closer engagement with this population in Bulgaria, they would become more influential actors in Balkan politics.


While Turkey approaches Bulgarian Muslims on the basis of their shared cultural and historical similarities as well as similar ethnic identity, Saudi Arabia’s main aim is to spread their religious ideology, Wahhabism


The collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Yugoslavia was a great opportunity for Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Saudi Arabia found the chanc

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