15 Dec 2010 / 08:35

‘Balkans stability impossible without Serbia’

Aleksandra Stankovic
Belgrade

Turkey’s former ambassador to Belgrade says relations with Serbia are at an all time high, but warns his successor’s to-do list is long and difficult. He gives Balkans Insight his end of term report.

“I am leaving this country knowing that everything is in much better shape than when I arrived,” says Suha Umar, who left his post as Turkish ambassador to Belgrade on September 10, 2010.

“When I arrived in this country… relations between Serbia and Turkey were at their lowest level because of [Turkish support for] Kosovo’s independence but also because of the lack of common interests, some prejudice and a lot of manipulation from outside.  We managed to overcome the obstacles.”

And Umar has, without doubt, been party to a dramatic thawing of once highly fraught relations between the two nations since coming to Belgrade in April 2008.

When Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008, Turkey was one of the first countries to back Pristina. Relations between Turkey and Serbia, which were already distant, hit rock bottom and Belgrade withdrew its ambassador from Ankara.

A mutual acknowledgement that peace and stability across the Balkans depends on both Belgrade and Anakara has been the driving force behind this détente, says Umar.

“If we are after peace and stability, without Serbia truly seeking peace and stability, it won’t happen. If we are looking for trouble, without Serbia it is very difficult to create trouble. This is why Serbia is the key country and Turkey has realised this fact,” he says.

Srebrenica Declaration

Umar lists the return of the Bosnian ambassador to Belgrade and the adoption of the Srebrenica Declaration - condemning the infamous 1995 Srebrenica massacre - by the Serbian parliament as significant achievements during his time in post.

Ankara’s negotiating role has been so successful, the Turkish prime minister and the presidents of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) jointly visited in July this year the site of the Srebrenica massacre – during which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

Just a few months earlier, this joint visit would have been unthinkable such was the antipathy between BiH and Serbia in the wake of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.

Umar hopes that Haris Silajdzic, chairman of the joint presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will visit Belgrade in the near future – it would be the highest level visit by BiH to Serbia since the war.

“In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when the much promoted Butmir process [handled by the European Union and the US] failed very badly… our approach, trilateral consultations went beautifully,” stresses Umar.

The opening of trade and investment between Ankara and Belgrade is another indication of just how far relations have improved between the two nations.

Free Trade deal

Turkey and Serbia’s free trade agreement came into force on September 1 this year. The deal opens Serbia’s to Turkish investors and paves the way for visa-free travel for nationals of both countries.

“Turkish businessmen are very interested in Serbia,” says Umar, point to the three giant Turkish construction firms - Kolin, Makwol and Juksel - who have just signed agreements to build part of the planned 445 km highway from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro via Sandzak, and two further roads in Sandzak.

Turkish Airlines has also expressed its interest in Jat Airways – the Serb national carrier – and others are keen to invest in shops, supermarket chains and hotels.

“This [free trade] agreement has really favourable conditions for Serbia. We did it on purpose because we believe that Turkey – with its huge economic potential – can help Serbia to start exporting and producing,” explains Umar.

Ankara has also chosen to invest heavily in the troubled, majority-Muslim Sandzak region that has strong links to Turkey. Many Sandzak residents have relatives who moved to Turkey during the Balkans War of 1912-13, as the Ottoman Empire begun to fall apart.

Sandzak was hit hard by international economic sanctions imposed during the Milosevic regime and poor economic management by central government. The region still suffers from high levels of poverty and unemployment.

“We have decided to buy meat from Sjenica in Sandzak…. We are talking about thousands of tonnes of meat. The transport should have already started, but it didn’t because, to my surprise, the EU is trying to block it,” says Umar. [Tanja: link to Turkey-EU row stymies Serb export deal story]

‘Our way to Europe’

Umar is clearly frustrated by EU moves to block the deal: “They [the EU] are trying to use some arrangements between Turkey and the EU by saying that if Turkey is buying meat from Serbia, it should buy meat from every single European country.

“This doesn’t make sense, but this is the European way of thinking. But we are determined to cooperate with Serbia; we are determined to help Serbia to recover. We want peace and stability because the western Balkans are very important to us, this is our way to Europe.”

A spokeswoman from the European Commission’s Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy department, however, denies the commission has taken steps to block beef exports from Serbia to Turkey, saying the problem lies with Turkish restrictions on meat and livestock exports from EU states.

“The restrictions imposed by Turkey… are not compliant with international standards and represent a major, unjustified barrier to trade. Therefore the EU has been calling consistently on Turkey to lift the ban from all [EU] member states without delay,” according to the EC.

With this mention of “our way to Europe”, Umar perhaps reveals another possible motive behind Ankara’s ambitions for the Balkans - Turkey’s long-standing, contentious and to-date unsuccessful attempt to join the European Union.

The most important reason behind Ankara and Belgrade establishing good relations is that cooperation between them would speed up accession to the EU.

However, many commentators in Serbia see this change of Turkish foreign policy as an alternative to EU membership because both Turkey and Serbia know they are still far from formally joining the union.

Umar also criticises some European countries as appearing to distrust Turkey’s new role as chief negotiator and investor to the Balkans.

“I wouldn’t give names, but some of them [European nations] are making it very clear that they don’t like this development. I don’t understand why, because peace and stability in the region is the most important thing and should be welcomed, but maybe some self-interests are more important,” he notes.

Challenges ahead

While keen to talk up Ankara’s achievements in the region and their shared if complex past, Umar notes his successor’s to-do list is long and fraught with difficulties.

Turkey is to hold further trilateral talks with BiH, Croatia and Turkey in an attempt to stabilise the country and strengthen political, economic and cultural relations.

In addition, the new ambassador will be expected to continue Ankara’s delicate engagement in politicians and community leaders in Sandzak and be ready to get involved as a broker in the thorny issue of Serbian recognition of the Kosovo independence declaration.

With a nod to the challenges ahead, he warns that finding lasting and workable solutions to ongoing disputes with and within BiH, Kosovo and Macedonia – to name but a few – will require “a lot of effort and good intentions from Serbia”.

It remains to be seen if the former foes new-found friendship can foster a lasting peace in the region, but some can’t help note that Turkish involvement is a little like history repeating itself given the country’s Ottoman Empire past.

Serbs will, however, be hoping for a happier outcome this time as they re-engage with their historical enemy.

Fellow Bio

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Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University

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Turkey and the Balkans

The re-emergence of Turkey as a growing economic, political and religious power in the Balkans is the subject of the latest Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative project.

Meet the Journalists

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Altin Raxhimi

Altin Raxhimi from Tirana, Albania, is an experienced journalist currently working freelance from Albania for a host of English-language publications, including BIRN, www.reportingproject.net, Inter-Press Service and The Chicago Tribune

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Lavdim Hamidi

Lavdim Hamidi was born in 1982 in Trnovac and is currently living and working in Kosovo. He is an experienced economics reporter and works for the daily newspaper, Zeri

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Gjergj Erebara

Gjergj Erebara was born in 1979 in Tirana, Albania. He has been specialized in economic reporting and currently works as journalist in “Shqip” daily published in Tirana and BalkanInsight.com publication.

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Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University

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Yana Buhrer Tavanier

Yana Buhrer Tavanier is a freelance journalist and a human rights activist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Previously she was editor of weekly Capital, and worked as a journalist for Tema magazine and daily Dnevnik.

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15 Dec 2010 / 08:35

‘Balkans stability impossible without Serbia’

Aleksandra Stankovic

Turkey’s former ambassador to Belgrade says relations with Serbia are at an all time high, but warns his successor’s to-do list is long and difficult. He gives Balkans Insight his end of term report.