COMMENT: Turkey banks on the Balkans

COMMENT: Turkey banks on the Balkans
By Alex Young in Belgrade January 5, 2016

The handsome actors of the Turkish soap opera, “Sulejman the Magnificent” (unfortunately no longer televised), lead many young and elderly women alike in Belgrade to curse the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Though not quite as dashing, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent visit to Serbia briefly aroused a similar level of interest.

Amidst fears of proxy conflicts in the Balkans and beyond arising from the deterioration of Turkish-Russian relations, ties between Belgrade and Ankara have taken on greater significance. With refugees seemingly undeterred by the harsh winter and the threat of Islamic State looming large, the entire region has an interest in the strengthening of ties between Serbia and Turkey, with Davutoglu stressing the importance of Serbia for peace and stability. 

Whilst trade and investment were at the forefront of discussions, it was the bridge-building possibilities offered by Serbia to Turkey, and vice versa, that provided the most important and intriguing dimension of Davutoglu’s first two-day visit to a foreign capital since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a critical election in November, regaining the parliamentary majority it lost in June.

Accompanied by five cabinet members and over a hundred Turkish businessmen – and greeted by over 300 Serbian businesses – Davutoglu sent a strong message about trade and economic co-operation. Turkish companies have invested in Serbia in a diversity of sectors – including construction, textiles, tourism – with the opening of the first Serbian branch of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank expected to further facilitate investment, especially in energy and transport. Both prime ministers are targeting €1bn of trade between the two in 2016, an ambitious target compared with the 2015 figure of €760mn.

And yet it was Davutoglu’s request for Serbian support to help normalize Turkey’s relations with Russia that reminded one about the unique role that Belgrade can play as a bridge to Moscow. Since Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane in November, a host of reciprocal measures have been enacted by Moscow that have impacted trade and travel. Seeking to defuse the situation, Davutoglu may have found an unlikely confidence-building ally in Serbia, given Belgrade's historical closeness to Russia and antagonism with Turkey.

Both Serbia and Turkey have found themselves on the front line of the refugee crisis – the former as a key transit point, the latter as an initial place of refuge. Both have demanded and received forms of assistance from the EU, and have enjoyed a renewal of ties with Brussels; Serbia is opening membership negotiations on two chapters, while Turkey is receiving financial assistance and got an agreement on visa liberalisation. Though neither is likely to become an EU member in the near future, both have a shared interest in lobbying for further improvements in relations.

From a regional perspective, Turkey has continued to play a positive role in improving Serbia’s ties with neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina through the so-called Istanbul Declaration, which commits the parties to peace and economic development. A joint economic and trade office for Serbia and Bosnia will be opened in Istanbul in the not-too-distant future, whilst Turkey has offered to assist entrepreneurs from both countries through its global network of embassies and trade offices. The Sarajevo-Ankara-Belgrade axis has provided an important counterpoint to often-fractured relations between Sarajevo and the capital of Bosnia’s predominantly Serb entity, Republika Srpska. 

Turkey also maintains strong ties with the sometimes restless Sandzak in the south-west of Serbia, where the bulk of the country’s 230,000 or so Muslim population can be found (identifying primarily as Bosniaks). Described by Turkey's foreign ministry as “a bridge of friendship between the two”, Serbia has long-feared radicalisation, whether Islamic or secessionist. Positive ties with Turkey – which include university scholarships and a vast diaspora – offer a potential channel for ameliorating tensions, whilst providing opportunities to develop one of Serbia’s poorer regions.

Ottoman hangover

Relations between Turkey and Serbia have, however, not been without difficulty. In 2013, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, during a rally in Prizren in Kosovo, proclaimed that, “Kosovo is Turkey, Turkey is Kosovo”. Serbia immediately responded with harsh rhetoric. When questioned by journalists on the matter in Belgrade, Davutoglu diplomatically affirmed how at home he felt in Belgrade, and that Istanbul and Antalya are also Serbian cities. His host, Serbian prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, replied in jest that Konya, Davutoglu’s hometown, should also be a Serbian city.

But many Serbs remain sceptical about Turkey’s role in Kosovo, Sandzak, Bosnia and elsewhere – a legacy of both the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the legacies of the Ottoman Empire. The refrain of neo-Ottomanism – a concept that Davutoglu himself has been pivotal in fomenting – arouses suspicion about Turkish intentions. And yet Turkish cultural influence has never been more pervasive, whether through the reconstruction of Ottoman heritage, the flood of Turkish soap operas or the popularity of Turkey as a tourist destination (which now rivals Serbia’s traditional friend Greece).

With events in the Middle East thrusting the Balkans back into the global spotlight, the continued strengthening of ties between Belgrade and Ankara is an unquestionably positive development. Leaving aside the undoubted economic motivations, the respective capitals can benefit from the bridge-building possibilities afforded by each other, not only regionally (with Bosnia) and domestically (with Sandzak), but internationally (with Russia and the EU).

The Turkish foreign ministry’s statement that relations with Serbia are at their “highest level... throughout the history of both countries” is no exaggeration, and the future evolution of their relations bodes well for the entire Balkan region.