President Erdogan’s recent visit to Serbia showed how skillful he is at getting quarreling Balkan leaders round the same table – but how long he can continue this high-wire act is an open question.
By Hamdi Firat Buyuk*
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Serbia on October 7-8, a number of Balkan leaders who are usually in bitter conflict with one another seemed happy to greet him.
Observers following his latest visit wondered how Erdogan had managed to get so many conflicted local leaders round the same table.
For some, it brought back memories of the days when the Ottoman Sultan would ride out from Constantinople on a white horse to visit his outlying territories and meet local lords and vassals – offering plenty of money and promises at the same time.
Turkey’s modern day-Sultan, President Erdogan, did not arrive on a white horse – but he did open six new factories in Serbia, accompanied by some 100 Turkish businesspeople, and both Turkish and Serbian leaders pledged to increase trade between their two countries.
Ankara sees Serbia as key to the region:
A decade ago, in 2008, the annual trade volume between Serbia and Turkey was worth only about 340 million US dollars.
These days, according to the Turkish government, the trade volume has risen to 1.2 billion US dollars. Turkey’s foreign direct investments in Serbia, almost zero a decade ago, have jumped to around 200 million US dollars.
Erdogan and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced that they aim to increase their trade volume to 5 billion US dollars in future, while Turkish investments in Serbia will continue to flow.
Vucic and Erdogan have a clear understanding of their bilateral relations, and of the need to improve economic ties and forget the two nations’ ancient wounds.
The Ottoman Empire ruled Serbia for several centuries. But despite that historic conflict, Turkey now sees Serbia as the key to its Balkan interests. The Turkish leadership clearly believes that having Serbia on their side will bolster peace and stability in the region.
Furthermore, both leaders have many similarities when it comes to their authoritarian styles of government and love of big construction projects – as well as worsening relations with the EU and the US and warm ties with Russia.
While Serbia is a traditional ally of Russia, Turkey, though a NATO member, is also shifting towards Russia for several reasons, much to the concern of its Western allies.
Balkan Autocrats see Erdogan as model:
While Turkey’s focus on Serbia might be expected to cause tension with other regional leaders, that was not in evidence when Erdogan visited Serbia.
The modern Sultan is skilled at putting everyone at ease. Bakir Izetbegovic, former Bosniak member of the Bosnian state presidency and leader of its main Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, needs Erdogan’s support to maintain his position and power in Bosnia.
Erdogan’s favourite politician in Bosnia has used the generous support of Turkish state institutions for different activities and campaigns, including the restoration of Bosnian monuments, zero-interest loans from the Turkish Ziraat Bank, and support from Anadolu Agency’s Bosnian-language service and other Turkey-funded media.
The current Bosniak member of Bosnia’s Presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic, closely follows Izetbegovic and his political directions, well aware of that he is his appointee.
Izetbegovic and his associates also aim at a strong leadership of the Erdogan type, in which everyone follows the charismatic leader without question. In reality, Izetbegovic does not have the charisma or the power to pursue such a role, but the Sultan always provides an illusion for his admirers.
His archenemy, the Bosnian Serbian hawk Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency, also looked happy to sit at Erdogan’s table.
He will continue to do so as long as his Serbian supervisor, President Vucic, has good relations with Erdogan – and as long as Turkish investments also come to Bosnia’s Serb-led entity, Republika Srpska.
It is still not clear when the Bosnian part of this motorway will be concluded, but the project has great importance for the region’s connectivity and investments, which depend on better infrastructure.
Dodik also knows how to attract money, just like Vucic. A number of Turkish companies operating in Bosnia’s other entity, the Bosniak-Croat led Federation, have shifted operations to the RS, where the bureaucracy is less rigid. Dodik offers incentives for this and he and other local politicians welcome Turkish business.
Courtship of Serbia draws criticism:
But while Erdogan has numerous admirers in the Balkans, not everyone is happy about his growing friendship with Serbia.
In Serbia’s southwest Sandzak region, the majority Bosniak population is upset that none of the new factories opening in Serbia is in Sandzak.
Erdogan has also divided Muslim opinion in Serbia. In Belgrade, he attended a ceremony in Belgrade’s only mosque, Bajraklija, which is run by the Belgrade-backed Islamic Community of Serbia. But many Bosniaks are suspicious of this organisation, seeing it as Belgrade’s long arm among the Muslims of Serbia.
Many ordinary Muslims in Bosnia, Sandzak, Kosovo or Albania, unlike their leaders, also question Erdogan’s Balkan policy. “He brings money to Serbia but just says ‘Selam’ (‘Hello’) to his Muslim brothers,” is one popular saying. “Erdogan gives factories to Serbs – but mosques to Muslims,” is another.
The Sandzak leadership prefers to stay silent or keep its criticism muted, firstly because of Erdogan’s general popularity and also because another motorway project between Novi Pazar in Sandzak and Uzice in Serbia will connect their isolated region to other countries in the region.
But the new deal between Belgrade and Ankara on arms sales is another hard thing for many Balkan Muslims to swallow. Unsurprisingly, the media in the region, and in Turkey, have mostly avoided covering this issue.
To avoid such criticism, Ankara needs to better explain its policies in the region, experts say, or concerns about Turkey’s role will grow among Balkan Muslims, who provide the main base for Turkey’s political engagement in the region.
In last two decades, Turkey has become an important factor in the Balkans and it looks set to develop this role, even as its relations with the West sour. The decline of the EU’s normative power and fading prospects of EU enlargement in the Balkans both increase Erdogan’s room for manoeuvre in the region.
The problem for him, and for Turkey, is that his policies in the Balkans have an ad hoc, reactive quality to them, rather than looking like strategically planned long-term engagements.
Balkan leaders will continue to favour Erdogan as long as the Turkish strongman supplies investment, political support and avoids touching sensitive historic wounds.
But with a crumbling economy and with mounting threats to his regime at home and abroad, it is not clear how long the modern-day Sultan will be able to continue to provide them.
*Hamdi Firat Buyuk is a BIRN journalist and a political analyst.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.