“Regardless of our ambitions to become part of the EU, we have to keep in mind that Turkey is also a very strong voice that can represent the needs of our region in wider terms in global platforms,” Montenegrin Prime Minister Igor Lukšić told me during a conversation I had with him in Ankara last week. He made it clear that his government is absolutely determined to boost ties with Turkey because he said Turks very well understand the needs of the region in contrast to others. I remember hearing similar remarks from visiting Montenegrin President Filip Vujanović last year at which time I had the opportunity to interview him as well.
I believe both Vujanović and Lukšić’s comments sum up very well the strategic thinking that drives the fast-growing relations between Turkey, the largest country in Southeastern Europe, and Montenegro, the smallest one in terms of size and population. It is obvious that Montenegrins have invested a lot in this relationship, hoping that Turkey, with special historical and cultural ties to this Balkan country going back to the 14th century, may help lift up the economy of Montenegro while providing a political boost to Montenegrins for reconciliation domestically and recognition globally.
Turkey acknowledges the value of Montenegro as a success story in terms of bringing different ethnicities and religious groups together in a region where many conflicts skirt these fault lines. Ankara lent its support to Montenegrin government initiatives in this respect and is doing everything it can to shore up the fragile ethnic/religious makeup of this tiny country in the Western Balkans. Montenegro can be a very good example for others, including EU members, to emulate, especially at a time when rising xenophobic and Islamophobic tendencies in many EU countries are making inroads in the political field on the back of extreme right parties.
The landmark agreement the government of Montenegro signed with the Islamic Union of Montenegro in January, a move welcomed by Turkey, gives legal and constitutional recognition to Muslims in Montenegro. This protocol has far-reaching implications not only for Montenegro but also for the wider region.
According to Rifat Fejzić, the reis (president) of the Islamic community in Montenegro, the agreement gives the Religious Affairs Directorate in Ankara the right to mediate in cases of disagreement between members of the Muslim community in Montenegro. This is certainly a significant step for the Montenegrin government, which recognized a foreign entity as an interlocutor in its own affairs. It showed that Montenegro is willing to go to extra lengths to ensure domestic reconciliation and peace.
There is, of course, another motivation on the part of Montenegro to reach out to Turkey in signing this deal: It wants Turkey to act as a bulwark against radical Islamic ideology from possibly taking root in Montenegro, which they fear might destabilize the internal harmony in the country. Montenegrin officials believe that the concerns over the divisive Saudi Wahhabi ideology are best addressed by injecting the inner-oriented Sufi version of the Turkish interpretation of Islam, which is not an unfamiliar phenomenon to the residents in the region, considering the long history of Turks in the Balkans.
Against the encroachment of the aggressive and well-funded Wahhabi ideology, Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate is perhaps the best suited as an institution to shore up the practice of moderate and tolerant Islam in Montenegro. It will definitely ease the minds of officials in Podgorica over the possibility of spillover risks from that radical ideology nestled in parts of neighboring Kosovo and Albania. It was estimated that there are probably a few hundred Wahhabi followers in Montenegro, mostly concentrated in majority-Muslim towns of Pav and Rozaje, close to Kosovo and Albania. Since virtually all Montenegrin Muslims are Sunnis, there is no risk of the radical Iranian version of Shiite ideology taking a root in this country.
When asked how his country has by and large accomplished inclusiveness in the society, Lukšić said, “There is no genuine formula apart from a constant committed effort to understand each other and to build a truly unique case based on diversity.” The government is very committed to overcoming any obstacle that may emerge on the path towards what Lukšić called a “harmonious society.” He said one can never take this situation for granted but rather must keep working on it. The goal for Montenegrins is “to serve as an example for other countries in the region and elsewhere that things can be settled by dialogue and by understanding each other.” This tolerant environment allowed for the first time, for example, for 104 Montenegrins to identify themselves as Turkish (Turci), the smallest ethnic category, in the 2011 population survey by the Statistical Office of Montenegro (MONSTAT), while 118,000 declared themselves as Muslims by religious denomination.
It was important to convey that message at the annual meeting of the Southeast European Cooperation Process (SEECP) in Budva, Montenegro, last year when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that Turkey attaches great importance to cultural, ethnic and spiritual diversity and the preservation of the Balkans’ social tissue. That is one of the main reasons actually for strong Turkish support for the principal target of the region’s countries, including Montenegro, to integrate with European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.
Turkey plays a key role in supporting Montenegro’s membership prospects for NATO and helping to bring the country’s armed forces in line with the standards of the alliance’s requirements. The same goes for Montenegro’s EU integration process. Whenever I run into the ambassador of Montenegro, Ramo Bralić, in one of these receptions held in the Turkish capital, he always explains to me how his country appreciates Ankara’s full-fledged support on a number of issues, including Euro-Atlantic integration.
On the economic front, there are encouraging signs that both governments have been working hard to lay down the legal foundation for stronger economic cooperation and investments. During Lukšić’s visit, five agreements were signed to develop relations, especially on civil aviation, social security and investment protections. Lukšić sees no reason why trade will not be doubled within a year provided that Turkish companies tap into the great potential that Montenegro offers in various industries. The trade volume was almost $50 million in 2008, heavily favoring Turkey. It dropped to $32 million in 2009 due to a global economic crisis but recovered a little in 2010. It made the big jump last year with a 27 percent increase, rising to $42 million in 2011 from $33 million a year ago.
Milo Đukanović, president of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, told our reporter in Podgorica last week that there is an open door for Turkish investors and announced that contact has already been made with potential Turkish investors on various development schemes in infrastructure, the energy sector, tourism and hospitality, the food production industry, transportation and the maritime industry.
I believe now is the perfect time to turn the Turkey-Montenegro Joint Economic Commission, to meet next month, into an important vehicle to deliver concrete business results. Montenegro urgently needs investment and trade deals to continue making progress in its growth, which was 2.5 percent last year. Otherwise, it would be difficult to tackle a rising budget deficit, which was 4.37 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and growing public debt, which was 45.3 percent of GDP last year.
Montenegro can be a gateway for Turkish companies to enter other markets in the region using the free trade agreement Turkey has with Montenegro. This means the potential consumer market is several hundred million instead of several hundred thousand. The prime example for this was seen when direct fights operated by Turkish Airlines (THY) between İstanbul and Podgorica were launched in July 2010. Many people who booked flights on this route have started to use Podgorica to make trips to other countries in the region using land and sea connections.
Last but not least is the existence of the huge diaspora with over a million modern Turks tracing their origins to Sandzak, which is today split between Montenegro and Serbia. They can potentially act as a catalyst in improving relations with Montenegro as well.