Turkey’s critical move in the Balkans

Turkey’s critical move in the Balkans

We spent the last two days of 2015 joining Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s trip to Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, as a group of journalists. 

At the moment our airplane landed, we found ourselves in an unprecedented heavy fog that dominated our whole trip. During our press conference at the end of the first day, Davutoğlu shared the unexpected news: “During my meeting with the Serbian prime minister today, I called the prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Upon my invitation, he will come to Serbia tomorrow and the three of us will hold a meeting in the Sandzak area.”

This was a big surprise for all of us not only because of the weather conditions that would make his trip to Sandzak almost impossible. The news was most surprising for everyone following the developments in the Balkans these days.

Sandzak is almost equivalent to Bosnia-Herzegovina since its population is composed predominantly by Bosnian Muslims. It is most critical these days that Serbian Prime Minister visits Sandzak, more importantly for the sake to meet with his Bosnian counterpart. This is because the relations between Serbs and Bosnians are on the edge today, implying the tensest period since the Bosnian War.

Last May I was in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina where I observed that the Dayton order, which was formed in the aftermath of the war, is a powder keg. At the time, I had written in this column, “even though 20 years have passed since the end of the war in 1995, the factors that triggered the war still prevail. Another war is inevitable if they don’t switch to a Dayton-2 period immediately.”

The main reason behind this is the increasing tension between the two political entities that compose Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is inhabited by Bosniaks and Croats, and Republika Srpska, composed of Serbs.

The Serbs of Republika Srpska are still dreaming of independence. Their president, Milorad Dodik, declared recently that he is planning to hold referendum on independence in 2018. In this context, Serbia is accused of encouraging Bosnian Serbs to become independent. 

Most recently, a development strengthened these accusations further. Bosnia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the official holiday of Republika Srpska on Jan. 9 is unconstitutional since it “discriminates against other ethnic groups.” Upon this, Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, announced that he will visit Bosnia on Jan. 9, challenging the court’s decision.

In this atmosphere, Ankara has convinced the two opposing sides to come together, which points to Turkey’s critical potential and capability to contribute to stability and peace in the Balkans.

Yet, what do Serbian people themselves think about their country’s attitude towards Republika Srpska?

In my second day in Belgrade, I met with Djordje Popovic, a Serbian academic who is heading leadership programs for Western Balkan politicians funded by the European Union.

According to him, Serbia officially supports Bosnia’s unity and will continue to do so. “We know that otherwise our EU membership process would collapse. Moreover the EU is pushing our prime minister hard to cancel his trip on Jan. 9,” he says. It is worth mentioning that Belgrade’s accession negotiations with the EU started just 3 weeks ago.

It looks like the EU perspective is existential not only for Serbia, but for the wider region. When I interviewed Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama last May, he specifically emphasized the importance of European integration: “Europe is the only dream for the people in Balkans. If this dream was to fade away, problems would start again,” he said. 

Rama strongly argued that all Balkan countries should become part of Europe, which would then pave the way for the erosion of borders. 

Beyond all of this, before arriving in Serbia the main question in my mind was: Have Serbs overcome their trauma after the Bosnian War? Djordje gives a sharp reply to this: “We have swept everything under the carpet. We have not talked about the war at all since it ended.”

Yet still, do Serbians feel themselves guilty? “War was not as present here as it was in Bosnia. But still, Serbians played their role in the war. They supported the parties who committed war crimes. However, I don’t think that they feel guilty. They have totally suppressed it,” he says.

What about Karadzic and Mladic, the two main representatives of the Bosnian massacre who are being tried in the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague today? How do Serbs evaluate them now? “They were their heroes in the past. And now they are tried for the worst human crime ever. Serbs are trying to forget them.”

The fog in Belgrade covers everything beneath it, including the memories that Serbs are trying to forget. Davutoğlu’s “Sandjak initiative” also fell victim to the heavy fog. The historical meeting couldn’t take place at all. 

Yet the fog will lift soon. And the day will come when everything will be discussed. It looks like Turkey can do a lot to make that day come earlier.