What is Turkey doing in Serbia?

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Erdogan’s visit to Serbia late in 2017 was received with much pomp. The Serbians were clearly happy to receive him and the Turks were just as pleased with the warm bilateral relations reflected in agreements that will see a significant increase in trade.

So what brings about this rapprochement between two historic rivals? And what drives Erdogan to risk the ire of the other Balkan states of Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo who resent Serbia’s continued refusal to acknowledge atrocities committed in the devastating wars of the 1990’s, not to mention the thorny issue of Kosovo’s independence?

Turkey and the Balkans

Erdogan’s visit comes at a difficult time for Turkey which is currently in the midst of a fraught relationship with the US and cautious alliance with Russia in Syria. Turkey has made no secret of its ambitions in the Balkans – a region it has sought to extend its influence in since the 1990s. Turkey has increased bilateral ties, has backed many Islamic initiatives, organisations and charities across Bosnia and Albania, and promoted the region’s Ottoman history as a means to bridge ties with the predominantly Muslim communities there.

However, Turkey’s efforts have been viewed with great suspicion from the EU and from the US often in implicit ways. For one, the EU already has great concerns over an inability to rein in the impact of polarising Turkish politics on its own European Turkish population. Secondly, countries such as France fear a stronger Turkey that threatens to bring about a semi-Islamisation of Europe. Thirdly, and perhaps more to the point, the areas where Turkey seeks to establish its influence surround the key Adriatic Strait which includes vital shipping routes and would allow Turkey to exert economic pressure by ‘choking’ key EU states such as Greece and even Italy, whose Adriatic ports are Europe’s key gateways to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

The US appear to share these concerns despite acknowledging Turkey’s value as a NATO ally. In order to push Turkey back, the US has sought to blacklist Turkey-funded charities and groups in Albania and Kosovo as ‘terrorist’ entities, while stopping short of accusing Turkey of funding terrorism, forcing it to withdraw backing and rein in their Balkan project. Turkey has found similar problems in Bosnia and has become frustrated at Washington’s antagonistic approach to Turkish foreign policy. A series of raids by Kosovo police in 2014, publicly welcomed by the US Ambassador, saw dozens of popular religious leaders arrested and a fierce campaign linking Turkey to extremism in the region. Part of these accusations targeted the work of TIKA – Turkey’s official aid agency that works in more than 170 countries and prompted angry responses from its ambassador to Kosovo as well as Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus.

Serbia plays on EU regret over Ukraine

So where does Serbia come in to this?

Serbia is in the midst of EU negotiations. As with all Balkan states, conditions for accession bring about austerity that threaten the political stability of the Serbian government. Moreover, the EU has brought the contentious issues of Kosovo and Bosnia to the table, pressuring Belgrade to acknowledge its role in atrocities committed. From a nationalist perspective, this is a red line. Moreover, Serbia goes even further and argues it should also be entitled to land that is currently under Kosovar jurisdiction.

In the face of EU pressure, and a polarised domestic context unsure about the merits of joining the EU economic bloc, Serbia has sought softer terms by applying pressure of its own. Playing on EU regret over its handling of Ukraine, Serbia has welcomed Russia’s overtures and the subsequent influx of FDI. Much to Serbia’s delight, these overtures come at a time of souring relations between Ankara and Washington, which has forced Turkey and Russia into an unlikely alliance and trade partnership.

In essence, by providing an economic lifeline to Serbia outside of the EU, Russia and Turkey threaten not only to jeopardise negotiations over EU accession, but also the foundations upon which the EU negotiates with other potential states. If the EU impose stringent conditions, Serbia will gladly welcome Russia and open up more economic sectors to Russian and Turkish investment. If the terms are too soft, then other states negotiating with the EU will demand the same.

This appears to be paying off. On 5th February 2018, the EU declared that Serbia will be a member of the EU by 2025, however there was no mention of a requirement to recognise Kosovo (a fierce point of contention during negotiations).

Where does Turkey benefit?

Turkey’s ambitions in the Balkans are no secret. With similar cultures, religion, food, and a history so intertwined, they are natural allies. However, the EU and US’ antagonistic policies towards curbing Turkish influence has irked Ankara. With souring relations with the EU over the migrant crisis, Turkish EU accession a lost dream, and failed negotiations over visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, Turkey is ready to resort to putting real pressure to achieve its ambitions.

For Turkey, Serbia is but a means to an end. Ankara seeks to use warmer bilateral relations as leverage against the US to allow increased Turkish involvement in the Muslim heartlands of the Balkans; namely Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. The EU and the US are loathe to cede this vital sphere of influence to Turkey which would give Ankara increased economic leverage over key EU members by virtue of the geographic location of these Balkan states along the Adriatic sea.

Allowing Turkey, a key NATO ally, to operate in Europe is perhaps a lesser evil than Russia. Therefore, if forced to choose, the US are likely to pressure the EU to ease off Turkish activity in the Balkans than risk bolstering a Turkish-Russian alliance that threatens to send Serbia eastwards and reinforce Russia’s rise as an alternative superpower ally. Moreover, they may argue that in countries such as Bosnia, for all Turkish investment and influence, Republika Srpska (one of the two components that make up Bosnia & Herzegovina and which remains loyal to Serbia) remains a viable check on any threat Turkish influence may pose. In other words, between Turkey and Russia, Turkey is easier to deal with.

In short, it is all to play for and Serbia is happily right in the thick of it.


This article was co-written with Senior Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) Behar Sadriu.