The return of historic empires has long been a favourite theme in Western pundits’ writings on the Balkans. The crisis-ridden EU is losing ground, we are told, and Russia and Turkey are filling in the gap.
“Neo-Ottomanism” is on everyone’s lips while Strategic Depth, Ahmet Davutoglu’s treatise making a case for a proactive foreign policy that draws inspiration from Turkey’s imperial heritage, has been translated into virtually all Balkan languages. There is no shortage of detractors, raving about Ankara’s geopolitical aspirations and resurgent ties to local Muslim communities. Even US diplomats have expressed concern about Turkey’s “ambitions” in the Balkans.
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But in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Serbia, it is difficult to find neo-Ottoman “ambitions”. Serbia is far from a historic ally, to put it mildly, and is hardly suffering from nostalgia for the Ottoman sultans (the popularity of Magnificent Century, a Turkish TV series on Suleiman the Magnificent, notwithstanding).
The visit has a much more pragmatic purpose. Twelve new agreements were signed with the Serbian government, including an update to the free-trade deal the two countries concluded back in 2009. Together with President Aleksandar Vucic, Erdogan pledged to push the annual trade turnover between the two countries from $800 million to $1bn. By virtue of its size, Serbia is Turkey’s most important market in ex-Yugoslavia, well ahead of kin countries, such as Bosnia or Kosovo.
This is not to negate the role played by Islam and the Ottoman past. Erdogan’s trip to the Muslim-majority area of Sandzak on October 11 is asserting his role as leader of a community transcending the Turkish republic’s borders. Novi Pazar, the capital of the Sandzak region split between Serbia and Montenegro, was covered in billboards with the Turkish president’s face and “hosgeldiniz” (“welcome” in Turkish) in big letters.
“Tito came to visit us only once. This is Erdogan’s second time,” said a local resident interviewed by Al Jazeera Balkans. “There is no family in Novi Pazar without a relative living in Turkey.”
It is remarkable that Erdogan has found a partner in Aleksandar Vucic. Serbia’s president cut his teeth in the ultranationalist Radical Party in the 1990s and served as Slobodan Milosevic’s minister of information. But now he is the voice of pragmatism: “This is not 1389. Serbia and Turkey are friendly countries,” he said, referring to the year of the Battle of Kosovo between Serbian forces and the invading Ottoman army.
Vucic is now a partisan of EU integration, nurtures ties with both NATO and Russia, brings in investment from the Gulf, and has even hosted the annual summit of China and Eastern European nations (the so-called 16+1 initiative). Turkey is yet another feather in Vucic’s cap; his foreign policy versatility evokes the era of Josip Broz Tito.
The cost of engaging Turkey is minimal. Nationalists in Serbia cheer at Erdogan’s disputes with the US and EU and the blooming friendship with Putin. Those who point at the unsettling parallels between Vucic’s strongman tactics and Erdogan’s authoritarian ways are simply ignored.
Turkey is seen as a partner rather than a threat because its leverage seems to be overhyped. Back in 2009-10, Foreign Minister Davutoglu harboured ambitions to become the western Balkans’ key mediator, especially in Bosnia. The three-way initiative he championed along with his peers from Belgrade and Sarajevo is still alive but its impact is symbolic.
Stronger ties with Serbia are, beyond doubt, a bonus for Turkey, at a time when the once fashionable doctrine of “zero-problems with neighbours” has long been forgotten. But they fall short of being a game changer for either Ankara or the western Balkans.
Speaking for Sputnik News, energy expert Jelica Putnikovic said that Belgrade has yet to find the money to construct a pipeline which would connect her country with Bulgaria, and that it is unclear how much it will cost.
“It would be good if Turkey was interested in financing the construction of the Bulgarian leg. Ankara certainly wants to receive as much as possible for gas transit through Turkish territory. So the more gas supplies, the more revenue Turkey can get,” Putnikovic said.
According to her, building gas pipelines is of both economic and political importance, which is why the Turkish Stream project could contribute to the normalization of relations between Balkan states.
She was echoed by former Serbian diplomat Srecko Djukic, who told Sputnik that Ankara would like Turkish Stream to reach the center of Europe. He said that “everything now depends on the EU and US attitude toward this project.”
Djukic added that Turkish Stream-related negotiations in Brussels are “extremely necessary,” because “it is increasingly clear that central Europe is even considering the construction of a Nord Stream 3 pipeline.”
“In this case, the Balkans could remain without gas. This is really a serious problem, for the question is already arising as to how to provide heat for the winter. People literally go into the woods, chop wood and start a fire to warm themselves as if the Second World War had just ended,” he said.
(Aj Jazeera, Sputnik News, 11.10.2017)
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