The unprecedented rapprochement between Turkey and Serbia in the last decade has significant ramifications not only for the Balkans but across the wider region. Despite negative historical references and bitter experiences to push two major powers in Balkans away from each other, the leadership of both countries has made a calculated decision to mend the fences and promote their bilateral ties on all fronts. Most importantly it seems that public opinion in both countries overwhelmingly supports this realignment that is set to benefit both Turkey and Serbia.
For a perfect example of how Turks and Serbs have started to see each other in more positive light, you have to read the award-winning book “Hamam Balkania,” published by acclaimed Serbian author Vladislav Bajac. The book, which received the international literature prize Balkanika in 2008, was recently translated into Turkish. In an interview with Today’s Zaman back in June, Bajac said he expected a negative reaction to his book in his country, especially from Serbian nationalists or the far right, but did not get any. Bajac argues that despite centuries of shared similarities in the same geography, both countries became victims of prejudice and political exploitation. This, however, has changed.
It is encouraging to see that Serbs do not show any uneasiness and seem rather comfortable with the principled approach of Turkish foreign policy in respecting the cultural, ethnic and spiritual diversity and the preservation of the Balkans’ social fabric. Ankara recognizes Belgrade’s central importance in establishing peace and stability in the troubled Balkans. That is why we have seen considerable support lent by Belgrade in recent years in Turkish initiatives to broker peace in the Balkans where, in the 1990s, the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II took place.
The launch of trilateral summits between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Turkey as well as similar meetings among Turkey, Croatia and Serbia yielded important results that have driven the Balkans toward integrating with Europe. The landmark decision of the Serbian Parliament to extend an apology for a bloody massacre of Bosnian Muslims in 1995 in the town of Srebrenica was an important milestone in that dialogue. It was historic moment when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was joined by Serbian President Boris Tadic in a ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina last year. It showed courage on the Serbian side and was a testament to their sincerity for constructive dialogue.
On a business level, we have seen a liftoff following the free visa regime signed in July 2010, allowing free movement of people between the two countries. The trade volume is not yet at the desired level, but it was expected to increase with a target figure of $3 billion in the next few years. Most importantly, the economies of both countries do not rival each other but rather complement each other. Turkish businesses may very well benefit from investments in the furniture, construction, food, textiles and telecommunications industries, and Serbian businesses may exploit the consumer market in Turkey. Turkish Airlines (THY), the national flag carrier, was mentioned as a potential buyer in a tender for the sale of Serbia’s main airline, Jat Airways. If that happens, there will be cooperation in aviation as well.
Turkey has actively lobbied for the Serbs’ integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions, primarily NATO, as well as its inclusion in the EU accession process. But just like Turkey, Serbia has also hit a snag in its EU ambitions, stemming from the opposition of Germany. In fact, Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia Dr. Slavica Djukic-Dejanovic told me on one occasion a funny saying circulated in Belgrade about her country’s prospects for becoming an EU member. It goes like this: Serbia will become full member of the EU when Turkey, still a candidate country, assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EU. A great irony, but it tells the tale of the problematic approach taken by major EU powers like France and Germany toward some countries.
Of course it should not come as a surprise that Germans are most uncomfortable with the growing Serbian-Turkish ties. Germany, which pushed hard for the breakup of Yugoslavia in the ’90s, has historically been opposed to a strong, independent and non-aligned major country in the Balkans, be it Serbia or Turkey. Serbs believe that the Germans are looking for excuses to exclude their country from playing a major role in the area while promoting Croatia in a fast-track membership process to the EU. Some in Serbia even suspect the hand of Germany behind the recent provocation along the border area with Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs live.
Against this backdrop, it made perfect sense to me when I heard Ms. Djukic-Dejanovic praising the Turkish role and expressing her country’s desire to enhance ties with Turkey. “The Turkish foreign policy establishment was able to understand the often complicated position of Serbia and her neighborhood much better than anybody else, and that has really helped us a lot. In comparison to the West, the Turkish approach [to the problems in the region] seemed much closer to ours,” she told Today’s Zaman in an interview last year. Stressing local ownership and regional cooperation, she rightly pointed out that third parties may often complicate matters in the Balkans. “We need regional cooperation with Turkey on many issues,” she stated.
Serbia handed over all war criminals to The Hague, one of the conditions put forward by the EU for a positive outlook on the membership process, but it now faces other issues such as tension with Kosovo and remaining issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It may eventually lead to a belief that no matter what Serbia does, it will be prevented from making inroads towards EU membership. It is very much like the Cyprus issue preventing Turkey from making progress in negotiations, or rather that France, Germany and a few others in the 27-nation bloc use Cyprus as an excuse to block Turkish membership talks.
The EU failed to pass a test of sincerity when Turkey pushed for the recognition of a UN plan in 2004 [the so-called Annan plan for settling the Cyprus dispute], resulting in the approval of that plan by the Turkish Cypriots. Brussels betrayed Turkey and accepted the Greek Cypriots’ bid to become a member even though the Greek side is the one that rejected the UN plan for peace. In a way, the EU rewarded an unwilling partner and punished the compromise-seeking partner on the Turkish side. Now, understandably, Serbs ask a similar question: How far would they need to bend to the demands raised by Brussels and whether or not the EU would honor verbal pledges made publicly or behind doors.
In a twisted destiny, both Serbia and Turkey face a similar dilemma and bleak future when it comes to the EU. But historical events turn out to be funnier than many anticipate. The EU today is facing a huge crisis originating in the eurozone with some of its highly indebted members throwing the EU into disarray. In contrast, Turkey is a thriving economy with one decade of political stability. Without much hassle, Turkey is set to offer Serbia privileged access to a huge domestic market of 74 million Turks and direct investment in the Serbian economy by Turkish companies. Turks have done this for Bulgaria and Romania and can do the same for Serbia as well. Turkey can also act as a gateway for Serbian goods to a much wider consumer market in the Middle East, Central Asia and even Africa.
I believe Turkey’s realignment with Serbia promises to offer much more in the future.