By Muhamet Brajshori
Turkey’s increasing involvement in Kosovo has elevated tensions between the country’s ethnic Albanian and Serb populations who maintain different viewpoints on Turkish engagement.
Since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, Turkey has developed a more active foreign policy towards the country. Turkey was among the first to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty, and has been lobbying for its recognition in other Muslim countries.
Stretching back to the Ottoman Empire, Albanians have shared strong cultural links to Turkey. However, the Serbs see these ties as the very reason Turkey should not involve itself in Balkan politics.
According to Dragan Krstic, a journalist from the Serbian-dominated northern Mitrovica, “Turkey is currently [Serbia’s] enemy and has been for centuries. They supported the split of [Serbia] and now want to support corrupt politicians in Pristina through the development of highways and airports.”
Bayrampasa, a district in Istanbul, has joined efforts with the city of Mitrovica to build the largest mosque in Kosovo — a move welcomed by Albanians but opposed by Serbs.
“The old mosque was destroyed during the war, and the new one would be warmly received,” says Bajram Spahiu, an ethnic Albanian from southern Mitrovica.
However, not all Mitrovica residents like the idea of a new mosque.
Sasa Nadjelkovic from the north says, “The Ottomans came here centuries ago by building mosques and now they want to build the new one to remove the Serbs from Kosovo and Mitrovica.”
Tensions run high in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica. Last year, clashes erupted between Serbs and Albanians after Turkey’s defeat of the Serbian national basketball team in the World Championship semi-finals.
Experts believe that Turkey’s engagement in Kosovo stems from its desire to act as Kosovo’s protector — a similar role that it served in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
“Engagement in Mitrovica is strategic for Turkey. Sooner or later Turkey will try to foster co-operation between Kosovo and Serbia, but it will play the protector role for Kosovo as it has done in other cases,” says Hysni Gashi, a PhD candidate who studies Turkish foreign policy towards Kosovo.
Krstic, however, thinks Turkish engagement in Mitrovica will lead to future confrontations between the Albanians and the Serbs.
“If Turkey takes an active role in Pristina instead, Mitrovica will never find its peace and we will have more clashes,” he says.
Krstic argues that Turkish and Albanian investments in Kosovo are often politically motivated and do not serve the interests of the Serbs.
“Serbia’s interest in Mitrovica is to make [Serbs’] life easier. Turkey, Albania and any other groups who support the Albanians do not serve this interest by investing in the city without Belgrade’s permission,” says Krstic.
However, now that Belgrade and Ankara have improved relations, Gashi sees Serbian resistance to Turkish policy in Kosovo and the region as short-lived. It’s mainly the Serbs in Kosovo and BiH that fear their existence in the case of Turkish intervention.
More than anything, Gashi worries that construction in Mitrovica — viewed as partial to either the Albanians or Serbs — could bring conflict, especially a religious building.
“For the northern Serbs, construction of a mosque would be interpreted as Turkey financing the Albanians to take [Serbs’] homes,” he says.