15 Dec 2010 / 09:00

Economics Override History for Belgrade and Ankara

Aleksandra Stankovic

After a long period of distant, often frosty relations, Turkey and Serbia appear to be finally warming to each other. But will the Serbian people put aside historic grievances dating back to the Ottoman Empire and welcome Ankara’s Balkan renaissance?

“We need jobs, so if the Turks are going to create new jobs, they are welcome. I believe that what was happening here more than 100 years ago won’t be an obstacle for Turkish investment in Serbia, because… we are living in a new age now,” says Aleksandra Mitic, a 20-year-old student in Belgrade.

Her views are, by and large, typical of the younger generation of Serbs, who appear less concerned with Turkey’s historical baggage as one time Ottoman occupiers of Serbia. Most simply see Turkish investment as good for the Serbian economy and jobs market.And the Serbian political leadership agrees. In fact, economic cooperation between the two former foes is now well under way.

Srdjan Stevic, a civil servant in Serbia’s economy and regional development ministry, says the volume of trade between Serbia and Turkey reached 180m euro in the first eight months of 2010 alone. That figure represents a 110% increase on figures for all of 2009.

Belgrade wants to bring the volume of trade between the two countries to about 365m euro in near future, according to a paper published recently by the Serbian parliamentary Joint Committee for Serb-Turk Economic Cooperation. By comparison, Serbia currently has the highest volume of trade with Germany, valued at 2.1bn euro in 2009.

Srdjan Janicijevic, director of the Economic Institute in Belgrade, says that economic cooperation with Turkey is vital because Serbia has been in trade deficit with Turkey to date and Turkish investment in Serbia is still very modest.

“Strengthening of economic cooperation is in the interest of both Serbia and Turkey because, among other things, the agreements that two countries have signed will make it possible for jointly producing and selling goods to third markets," he says.

Just this summer, Ankara and Belgrade signed an agreement that will allow three major Turkish construction companies – Kolin, Makwol and Juksel – to build part of the planned 445km highway that will link Belgrade to Bar, a city on the coast of neighbouring Montenegro.

As part of the deal, the Turkish companies are obliged to ensure 45% of their subcontractors are Serbian construction firms. This contract marks the first large investment in Serbia.

This is just the start. Turkish investors are eyeing a range of projects – including other infrastructure contracts and potential deals involving factories, supermarkets, leisure, energy and the rebuilding of airports.

Turkish Airlines is also bidding for the Serbian national carrier, JAT Airways, which is saddled with almost 150m euro of debt and an ageing fleet of aircraft. Negotiations between the two airlines are expected to be finalised by early 2011. While JAT has become a costly liability for the Serb government, Turkish Airlines is keen to expand it routes across the Balkans.

Ankara and Belgrade signed a free trade accord – which came into effect in September this year – opening Serb markets to Turkish investors. The two countries are in the process of allowing visa-free travel for their nationals.

Sulejman Ugljanin, the Serbian minister who is responsible for Serbia-Turkey bilateral relations, backed visa liberalisation during a parliamentary debate in October this year, saying it would enable greater investment in Serbia.

“We should enable businessmen to invest here and employ young people. We have an obligation to enable our future strategic partners to come to Serbia without waiting at the airport.”

Diplomatic relations restored

This represents an astonishing reversal of diplomatic relations, which had deteriorated badly during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992-1995. The animosity reached a high point in 1999, when Turkish airplanes took an active part in NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

Serb-Turk relations: At a glance

• Relations between Ankara and Belgrade hit an all-time low after Turkish planes participate in the 1999 Nato bombing of Serbia

• Turkey becomes one of the first nations to recognise Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008

• Serbia subsequently withdraws its ambassador to Ankara

• Turkish president visits Serbia in October 2009 – the first such visit in 23 years

• Bosnian ambassador returned to Belgrade after a three-year absence, following Turkish negotiation

• Ankara invited to negotiate peace deal between political factions in troubled Sandzak region

• Ankara and Belgrade sign a free trade agreement in 2010, paving the way for visa-free travel for citizens

Diplomatic relations were severed when Turkey became one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008. At that time, Serbia withdrew ambassadors from all countries which supported independent Kosovo.    

However, the détente was confirmed when Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, visited Belgrade in October 2009 – the first such visit in 23 years.  Both Gul and Boris Tadic, president of Serbia, declared relations between their two nations had never been better.

The official visit was swiftly followed by regular trilateral meetings of the foreign affairs ministers of Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. Observers believe that Turkish influence and negotiation led to the Serbian parliament adopting the Declaration on Srebrenica on March 30, 2010.

The declaration was a diplomatic landmark as it condemned the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during which more than 8000 Muslims were killed. After this, the presidents of Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia met in Istanbul to sign the Istanbul Declaration on Peace and Stability in the Balkans on April 24, 2010.

Aleksandar Popov, director of the Centre for Regionalism organised, based in Novi Sad, which aims to further cooperation across the region says: “The Istanbul Declaration opened the possibility for resolving problems though dialogue [between Bosnia and Serbia].”

Indeed, in July this year, Erdogan, Tadić and the chair of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency, Haris Silajdžić, jointly attended a Srebrenica memorial service.

This was unthinkable only a few months ago, because of the ongoing disputes between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina which begun during the war.

Thanks also to Ankara’s involvement; the ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina is again present in Belgrade, after a three-year absence.

Initially, Serbia objected to the Bosnian candidate for the ambassador post in Belgrade, Borisa Arnaut. Belgrade had a change of heart, apparently persuaded by Ankara’s call to accept Arnaut in the interests of improved relations between Bosnia and Serbia.

Sandzak dispute

If Ankara’s involvement in Serbia’s foreign affairs is remarkable, Turkish participation in resolving Belgrade’s internal disputes is even more so.

The Serbian political elite certainly seems to be content to allow Ankara to also get involved in attempting to resolve internal disputes – most notably in the impoverished and troubled Sandzak region in south-western Serbia, which borders Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo.

The Sandzak region is predominantly Bosniak - Muslim with strong Turkish links. Many Sandzak residents have relatives living in Turkey, as many emigrated during the 1912 and 1913 Balkan wars, as the Ottoman Empire began to decline.

In turn, Ankara is keen to invest in the region. The section of the Belgrade to Bar highway Turkish companies will build lies across the Sandzak region. In addition, Turkish companies have been awarded two further contracts to build smaller roads elsewhere in Sandzak.

Bearing in mind that just 20 per cent of Sandzak’s roads are paved, residents are hoping these new highways will help rejuvenate the local economy. Sandzak was hit hard by international economic sanctions imposed under the Milosevic regime and poor financial management by central government, including controversial privatisation deals.

More than 50% of the active population in Sandžak is registered unemployed – something that fuels strong and vocal discontent.

Indeed, the parading of Turkish flags by many of Sandzak’s youth after Turkey beat Serbia in the semi-finals of the World Basketball Championship, held in Istanbul on September 11, 2010, indicates just how high tensions are in the region.

While some locals dismiss this apparently anti-Serb feeling as merely reflective of the regions close ties to Turkey, others claim it is partially inspired by the comments of Muslim leaders in the region – in particular, Muamer Zukorlic, who is calling for Sandzak to be an entirely autonomous region.

Turkey has publicly criticised Zukorlic’s views, making it clear to Belgrade that it will not support moves to grant Sandzak autonomy.

Suha Umar, who was Turkey’s ambassador to Belgrade until September this year, stresses that Ankara wishes only to stabilise the situation in Sandzak.

“Autonomy is not in the interest of people of Sandzak because their future lies in the future of Serbia. If they choose to go in other direction they will be isolated, poor and even we cannot make them survive,” said Umar.

And to underline the point, the Turkish prime minister, Tayip Erdogan, was careful to ensure he was accompanied by the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, when he opened the Turkish Cultural Centre in Novi Pazar, the biggest town in the Sandzak region, in July 2010.

Again, Turkey can claim much success in defusing potentially explosive tensions in Sandzak.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign affairs minister, helped negotiate a peace deal between two major political parties in Sandzak. There have been numerous incidents between members of Sandzak’s Party of Democratic Action of Sandzak, led by Sulejman Ugljanin, and the Social Democratic Party of Serbia, led by Rasim Ljajic.

Only four years ago, during local parliamentary elections in Novi Pazar, one of the candidates of Party of Democratic Action of Sandzak for MP’s was killed near a polling station and another injured. Two years before that, two people were seriously wounded after a gun fight broke out during election campaigning.

After several years of deep-seated hostility, Rasim Ljajic and Sulejman Ugljanin now cooperate closely.
Despite this, a much hoped for reconciliation between two Muslim leaders in Sandzak - Muamer Zukorlic and Adem Zilkic - continues to elude negotiators.

The Islamic community in Serbia is sharply divided. Muamer Zukorlic is the leader of a party which regards Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a centre of the Bosniak Islam community of Serbia, while Adem Zilkic, leads an Islamic community that encompasses all Muslims in Serbia – regardless of ethnicity or links to Turkey.

The Centre for Regionalism’s Popov says that Ankaras’s role in stabilising the discord in Sandzak has had a big impact – but will be limited in regards to the inter-Muslim dispute.

“If the conflicts between Rasim Ljajic and Sulejman Ugljanin didn’t stop, the situation in Sandzak would be more complicated after Mufti Zukorlic brought Sandzak to boiling point. But there is an impression that Turkey doesn’t want to get too involved in the religious dispute, probably in order not to offend one or another side in the Islam community or Belgrade.”

Common EU ambitions

Ankara’s ambition to join the European Union, which is matched by Belgrade and other Balkan nations, is another motivating force behind renewed relations and economic cooperation.
“We want peace and stability because western Balkan is very important to us, this is our way to Europe”, explains former ambassador Umar.

On the other hand, some analysts in Serbia say that the slow pace of EU integration has united candidates like Turkey in Serbia, as they consider alternative options and partnerships.

“The tempo of integration… [of the Western Balkans within the EU] has been slowed down considerably. As for Turkey, it appears that there is no chance of full EU integration in foreseeable future, if at all,” says Professor Darko Tanaskovic, an expert in Oriental studies at the University of Belgrade and one-time Yugoslav ambassador to Ankara.

“Therefore, the project of bilateral and multilateral cooperation of these countries may develop over time into an alternative to European integration. Such options have been discussed informally quite often.”

However, while the political elites and young students may be more than willing to see Turkey re-emerge as a political and economic power in the region, not all Serbs feel the same. Ankara’s battle for the hearts and minds of everyday Serbs is very far from over.

In contrast to the younger generation, many middle-aged Serbs still remember history lessons detailing many and varied outrages committed during 500 years direct Ottoman rule. Their animosity toward the Turk – a word often used as term of abuse by many Serbs – is far from fading.

Unlike the Turkish foreign affairs minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who believes the Ottoman Empire was a golden age for the Balkans, most Serbs were taught from primary school that the Ottomans were brutal occupiers.

Every 10-year-old student in Serbia learns about The Killing of the Noblemen, a grisly event that took place in Serbia in the 19th century under Ottoman rule. The heads of janissary units known as dahias killed around 100 Serbian leaders in just a few days.

This event has been immortalised in a song written by the epic poet Filip Višnjić, entitled The Beginning of the Uprising Against the Dahias. It is included in primary school textbooks today and reinforces the message that the Ottomans turned Serbs into “helpless commons, who will serve the Turks well”.

Anti-Turk protests

And this lasting animosity towards the Turks has continued to find expression in present-day Serbia. When a Turkish investor came to Serbia in 2009, intending to invest in the Bujanovacka Banja spa resort in the south of the country, the local population vociferously protested any such sale to ‘a Turk’. The investor duly changed his mind.

The Beginning of the Uprising Against the Dahias

By Serb poet Filip Višnjić

We will cut down the Serbian noblemen,

All the noblemen and all the leaders;

And village chiefs in the villages,

And priests, those Serbian teachers,

We will leave only feeble minded children,

Children under the age of seven,

And turn them into helpless commons,

Who will serve the Turks well


Translated by Djordje Tomic

The residents of Bujanovacka Banja were far from alone in resisting a renewed Turkish presence in the country.

Illija Stankovic, is a man in his mid-fifties from Pirot, a town in the southeast of Serbia, 300 km from Belgrade close to the border with Bulgaria.

“It is only natural that I do not fancy the idea of Turks investing in Serbia,” he says. “We had them here for 500 years and what do we have to show for that? They just exploited the common man and they want to do it again.”

Present day Turks, and especially Turkish politicians and intellectuals, need to understand that many people in the Balkans take an extremely dim view of Turkey’s Ottoman past which is unlikely to change any time soon, warns Professor Tanaskovic.

“Judging by certain statements by Turkish officials and intellectuals, and attitudes expressed in history textbooks, it appears that [Turkey wants]… exactly this change in perspective. That is expected from the non-Muslim peoples of the Balkans.”

Tanaskovic stresses that many people in the Balkans, especially those distrustful of Ankara’s apparent support for fellow Muslims in the region above others, will only see Turkey’s Balkan renaissance as a modern day version of the old Ottoman Empire.

“The relations between Turkey and Serbia might be quite harmonious in the long run, provided that Turkey gives up on its neo-Ottoman agenda. But this is quite unlikely to happen,” says Tanaskovic.

While the politicians may have cosied up to one another, it seems Ankara is a long way off persuading all Serbs that political and economic cooperation will benefit both nations.

Fellow Bio


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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.

Alumni Stories

09 May 2011 / 10:10

Turkish Health Sector Eyes Balkan Market

Altin Raxhimi

The main entrance hall of the Acibadem Maslak Hospital in Istanbul’s European quarter is crammed with relatives of Turkish pop singer Ibrahim Tatlises, who is being treated here for gunshot wounds, and security guards, anxious to keep the press at bay.

21 Apr 2011 / 11:11

Davutoglu: ‘I’m Not a Neo-Ottoman’

Compiled by Altin Raxhimi

Q&A with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu

24 Mar 2011 / 12:20

Ethnicity, Numbers and Identity in Istanbul

Altin Raxhimi

Salahetting Bolukbas’s 21-year-old niece stands on a glass bar serving hunks of Bosnian burek in the main thoroughfare of Bayrampasa, a suburb on the European, western side of Istanbul.

22 Mar 2011 / 10:10

Albanians, Leeks and are Bulgarian Turks Emotionally Cold?

Altin Raxhimi

I have been researching relations between Turkey and the Balkans of late, ahead of my trip to Turkey this week. It’s been fun, well mostly, to discover what the average Turk might think of Albanians, Bosnians and Bulgarians.

14 Feb 2011 / 10:10

Macedonia-Turkey: The Ties That Bind

Darko Duridanski (link)

While Ankara maintains close diplomatic relations with Skopje, cemented by their shared political enmity toward Greece, Turkey must step carefully when it comes to inter-ethnic disputes within ‘the heart of the Balkans’.

15 Dec 2010 / 10:00

Turkey’s Balkan Shopping Spree

Lavdim Hamidi

Ankara is investing in strategic sectors in the Balkans in order to increase its economic and political influence, but what’s on Turkey’s must-buy list?

15 Dec 2010 / 09:00

Economics Override History for Belgrade and Ankara

Aleksandra Stankovic

After a long period of distant, often frosty relations, Turkey and Serbia appear to be finally warming to each other. But will the Serbian people put aside historic grievances dating back to the Ottoman Empire and welcome Ankara’s Balkan renaissance?

15 Dec 2010 / 08:55

Albanian Muslims grapple with religious identity

Altin Raxhimi

A Turkish brand of Islam now dominates the country’s religious institutions, as local Muslims struggle to find their own spiritual path.

15 Dec 2010 / 08:50

Albanians question "negative" view of Ottomans

Gjergj Erebara

Aggressive invader or friendly administration? The portrayal of the Ottoman Empire in Albania’s history books remains the subject of fierce debate for Albanians and Turks alike.

15 Dec 2010 / 08:45

Ottoman past haunts Turkey's Balkan image

Marcus Tanner

Ankara must be careful projecting itself as a player in a region where the word “Turk” still carries a good deal of historical baggage.

15 Dec 2010 / 08:40

Turkey-EU row stymies Serb export deal

Aleksandra Stankovic

A 3m euro beef export deal between Serbia’s impoverished Sandzak region and Turkey has been blocked because of a trade dispute between Ankara and the EU.

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.