Serbia and Turkey seek to boost trade and role as key Balkan powers
Centuries of enmity loom over bid to strengthen economic and political ties
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their visit at Novi Pazar on Wednesday in Serbia. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a mostly Muslim region of Serbia with the country’s leader Aleksandar Vucic on Wednesday, as they promoted economic ties and their own claims to being guarantors of stability in the Balkans.
Mr Erdogan and an entourage of some 200 businessmen, government ministers and deputies held talks in Belgrade amid tight security on Tuesday, before a dinner at which Serbian foreign minister Ivica Dacic sang in Turkish for the guests.
After signing 12 trade and political agreements, Mr Erdogan and Mr Vucic travelled today to Novi Pazar, capital of the Muslim-majority Sandzak region close to Serbia’s border with Kosovo, where they were expected to sign another four deals.
Mr Erdogan said he wanted annual bilateral trade to grow from some $800 million (€675 million) to nearer $5 billion (€4.2 billion), as Turkey regains influence in a region that the Ottomans dominated for centuries, and where Ankara backed Bosnian Muslims in their 1990-95 war with Serbs and Croats and quickly recognised Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Belgrade.
“After a difficult period we have arrived to where we are now. We want to make big steps with Serbia, but also with the whole of the Balkans, in order to solve all the problems,” Mr Erdogan said.
“When I go to Novi Pazar with my dear friend Vucic, I will tell our brothers there that their role, too, is to create peace between the two countries. I want to stress that I will never be in favour of any nationalism.”
Referring to the Battle of Kosovo, when victory for the Ottoman Empire led to its occupation of the medieval Serb state, Mr Vucic said: “This is not 1389, but 2017. Today, Serbia considers Turkey as its friend.”
Mr Erdogan reiterated his support for a new highway between Belgrade and the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, and said Serbia could receive gas “in the shortest possible term” from the planned Turkish Stream pipeline linking Russia and Turkey.
Analysts said Mr Erdogan’s visit to Novi Pazar would underline his hardline stance against schools and organisations in the Balkans and elsewhere associated with exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of plotting a failed coup in Turkey last July.
“The network used to be the vanguard of Turkish soft power abroad, but now, the Turkish government seeks to dismantle it, whether in Bosnia, in Georgia or in Central Asia,” Dimitar Bechev, a Balkans expert at the Atlantic Council, wrote for Al-Jazeera.
“Erdogan’s message in Novi Pazar is clear: Sandzak is my turf, not Gulen’s.”
Growing Turkish influence adds another strand to complex Balkan relations, at a time when Serbia and its neighbours are making only slow progress towards European Union membership and Russia is seeking to boost its political and economic clout in the region.
“Turkey and Serbia are two key countries in the Balkans,” Mr Erdogan wrote in Serbia’s Politika newspaper on the eve of his arrival.
“Therefore, in order to maintain stability, peace and prosperity in the Balkans and throughout Europe, co-operation between Turkey and Serbia is crucial.”