Turkish delights in the Balkans

By bne IntelliNews June 16, 2010

Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -

While the EU was insisting at a conference in Sarajevo in June that there's still a place within the bloc for countries of the Western Balkans, another big player, Turkey, continues to reassert its position in the region.

Since Abdullah Gul's visit to Serbia last October - the first by a Turkish president for almost 25 years - relations between the two countries have continued to go from strength to strength. Aside from Turkey's strong historical and cultural ties to the Balkans - the Ottoman empire stretched as far as Budapest at one point - its re-emergence in the region is motivated by a number of economic, diplomatic and strategic considerations that have re-focused its attention on the region.

In April, Gul persuaded Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, and the Bosniak member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, Haris Silajdzic, to sign the so-called "Istanbul Declaration," which reaffirmed a shared "commitment to take all necessary steps to ensure regional peace, stability and prosperity."

Thanks to Turkish diplomacy, Tadic will go to Srebrenica on July 11 to mark the 15th anniversary of the genocide committed there, whilst Silajdzic agreed to make his first trip to Belgrade since 1992. Though Silajdzic's scheduled May visit was ultimately cancelled - officially due to an aircraft failure, though largely attributable to Serbia's refusal to grant Silajdzic access to Ilija Jurisic, who was convicted of war crimes charges - both countries immediately called upon Turkey to again intercede to resolve their differences.

As Dr Florian Bieber, a lecturer in East European Politics at the University of Kent and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, says: "The recent engagement of Turkey in the Balkans, particularly mediating between Serbia and Bosnia, is a significant shift from Turkey's more passive role in the region. To some degree, Turkey's engagement is a reflection of the passivity of the EU in the Western Balkans. Still, I would not consider Turkey competing with the EU, but rather being a useful complement. It has clout with some players - such as the Bosniak politician, Haris Silajdzic - where the EU seems less effective."

Turkey also played a key role in persuading Nato to grant Bosnia-Herzegovina a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in April - widely-regarded as the penultimate step towards membership of the alliance.

Turkey's growing diplomatic leverage comes at a time when EU member states are increasingly distracted by their own domestic concerns, which has caused concern to rise in the Western Balkans that the EU is suffering from so-called "enlargement fatigue" - fears that the June 2 meeting in Sarajevo was designed to allay. By portraying itself as a reliable and constructive actor on a stage where the EU remains divided and often indecisive, Turkey hopes to once more demonstrate its own EU membership attributes.

As Zarko Petrovic, research director at the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) in Belgrade, points out, "Turkey understood that its EU prospects are slim, which is why it is trying to make itself indispensable for the EU in many regions. Its success thus far is limited to the Western Balkans, which makes this region even more important for Turkish diplomacy. Diplomats in the Western Balkans understand this, and are trying to cash in on the situation. Turkey, unlike the EU, attaches few strings to its assistance, which - although still modest - is not insignificant. The 'regional catch', however, is that nobody in the Western Balkans wants EU-unbound Turkey to be a loose cannon in this region - least of all Serbia."

The benefits of diplomacy

Despite their disagreements over Kosovo's status (the Turkish PM recently signed bilateral agreements concerning transport, agriculture, education and the environment with his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci), Serbia and Turkey - having signed a free trade agreement last year - continue to foster stronger economic ties.

Turkish Airlines, for one, has expressed an interest in becoming a strategic partner to Serbia's national carrier, JAT Airways (which was recently restructured in order to make it more attractive to potential investors). In 2008, Turkish Airlines purchased a 49% stake in Bosnia-Herzegovina's national carrier, B&H Airlines, which allowed the latter to secure new investment to upgrade its ageing fleet.

Five Turkish companies are also said to be interested in a €2.5b public tender for the construction of a highway connecting Belgrade with Boljare, on the border with Montenegro. Last year, it was announced that Turkey's ExImBank, which is responsible for promoting the export of Turkish goods and services, would provide a €30m loan to upgrade roads in the predominantly Bosniak region of Sandzak in south-western Serbia, with Turkey's Yuksel designated as the main contractor.

Despite accounting for only 3% of all inward investments into Serbia between 2000 and 2008, Turkey is determined to expand its economic presence. As Dr Bieber emphasizes, "with the economic crisis in Greece - whilst Turkey is weathering the economic climate much better - it is likely that Turkey's economic significance in the region might increase as well."

Turkey's interests also extend to the defence sphere. An agreement was signed with Serbia in 2009 governing the secure exchange of confidential information and conditions for the joint-production of defence industry products, thereby laying the foundations for intensifying future co-operation. Turkey's state-owned weapons manufacturer, Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation (MKEK, Makina ve Kimya Endustrisi Kurumu), meanwhile, last year signed an agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina's Unis Frop to co-operate on the joint-production and marketing of defence projects; a timely boost to the latter's slowly re-emerging arms industry.

With the EU distracted by its own internal considerations, Turkey's renewed presence in the Balkans - alongside that of Russia - demonstrates once more the growing importance of alternative sources of influence for the region. Whether Turkey will complement or contradict the EU's own objectives, however, will ultimately depend upon how the EU itself handles Turkey's own membership aspirations in the coming years. Whilst contributing to good neighbourly relations in the short-term, Turkey will need to continue to supplement its diplomatic influence through economic and strategic means.

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