By Erisa Dautaj Şenerdem
Turkey has followed a more proactive foreign policy towards the Balkan region in recent years, and along with its strong political and diplomatic ties with these countries, it can contribute to regional peace and stability. So say representatives of political organisations and NGOs from the region who urge Turkey to boost its economic presence there.
The signing of the Istanbul Declaration among the presidents of Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in Istanbul in April 2010 marked an important achievement regarding Turkey’s role in the Balkans. The revitalisation of Turkish foreign policy towards the region is also often referred to as “neo-Ottomanism,” following Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s approach and speeches.
The three heads of state — signatories of the Istanbul Declaration — expressed their “commitment to the territorial integrity, sovereignty and the legal personality of Bosnia and Herzegovina within its internationally recognised borders, while stressing the importance of national reconciliation within BiH,” in the document. This was considered the most relevant part, and although it was not a solution to all problems between the two countries, Turkey was praised for having Serbia comment on BiH’s territorial sovereignty.
“I need to say that we are quite thankful for [Turkey’s] role in whole political process in the region. [However,] in recent years, we did not really have diplomatic and political problems with our neighbours. We [rather] have problems with every day lives … that we need to solve on our own,” BiH’s Federal Minister of Education and Science, Damir Masic, told SETimes.
Among these, he cited trade problems BiH has with Croatia, saying Bosnian companies lacked the same reciprocal treatment that Croatian firms enjoy in BiH. Another concern, he said, is the fact that BiH never established and signed an agreement on exact borders with Croatia and Serbia.
Turkey has definitively had a positive impact and influence across the Balkans in all circumstances, Masic said. “But the part which we are not satisfied and [where] we think there is space for improvement is definitively economic co-operation,” he noted.
Turkish diplomacy’s considerable advancement in the Balkan region gives the country a stronger negotiating position within NATO and with the EU, according to Hüseyin Bağcı, the chairman of the international relations department at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. The country has supported international initiatives regarding regions in the Balkans exposed to conflict, wars and ethnic cleansing after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and has played an especially active role regarding the BiH and Kosovo crises.
Noting that Turkey has participated in all important initiatives of peace and stability, and has been active in the NATO operations regarding the Kosovo issue, former Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said it has also contributed to his country’s post-war economic development through strong investments.
“It is crucial that Turkey continues with its strong support for Kosovo, and naturally continues its co-operation with countries [in the Balkan] region that will help build a co-operation climate among these countries and beat eventual obstacles in front of us, particularly Serbia’s unfair approach towards Kosovo,” Sejdiu told SETimes.
As one of the first countries to recognise Kosovo’s independence, Turkey has intensively lobbied for its recognition by other countries, particularly members of the Islamic Conference, Sejdiu said. However, he argued that Turkey had to involve Kosovo in regional official meetings as well, especially referring to meetings Turkey has with Croatia, Serbia and BiH.
“I think Turkey must expand the network in this direction … so that Kosovo is part of the [regional] partnership and that it is not understood as if [the latter] is being avoided.”
“In order to assist in such a situation, there should be will by both parties [Kosovo and Serbia], otherwise Turkey risks taking a unilateral stand,” İlter Turan, a professor of international relations at İstanbul Bilgi University, told SETimes. Turan, however, said that Turkey could show an interest in solving Kosovo’s issue as it did with BiH.
Bağcı, on the other hand, argued that this could be an opportunity for Turkey to play a mediating role, if desired by both Kosovo and Serbia. Noting that Serbia will have to take several steps regarding the Kosovo issue by July, due to obligations regarding its candidate status for EU membership, Bağcı said a demand for mediation could come from the EU as well.
Turkey’s political relations with Serbia have been at their peak in the past couple of years, which is another important element in the context of Turkey’s more proactive role in the Balkans. Highest level officials have paid formal visits to each other in recent years, after ups and downs following Turkey’s recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.
“The priority of Belgrade and Pristina [should be] economic collaboration and [increasing living] standards of the people. Political pressures will be finished with time,” Nebojsa Randelovic, a member of the Serbian parliament and deputy chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party — a political party that supports recognition of Kosovo as an independent state in Serbia — told SETimes.
In contrast to Turkey’s direct involvement in the BiH and Kosovo issues, the country has played an indirect role regarding the Albanian issue in Macedonia, according to Abdula Saliu, vice president of the Skopje-based Balkan Peace Club.
Turkey has not been involved officially regarding this issue, due to very good relations it enjoys with Macedonia, Saliu told SETimes, adding that Turkish NGOs as well as the Turkish International Co-operation and Development Agency had played an important role, supporting Albanian minority people with aid for education and restoration of important cultural monuments.
Turkey has absolutely played a positive role for stability in the Balkans during the post-Yugoslav era and has excellent current relations with all Balkan countries, according to Vujica Lazovic, deputy prime minister of Montenegro.
“It is very important to have a common friend-country …, especially in case there is no good collaboration among the region’s neighbouring countries themselves,” Lazovic told SETimes. He also said he hoped more and more Turkish companies would invest in the region. “You know, a [good] economy is the base for everything, the solution to any problem,” Lazovic said.