Turkey-Serbia: The improvement of multidimensional ties despite differences

Turkey-Serbia: The improvement of multidimensional ties despite differences

Birgül Demirtaş
The first visits of political leaders in the aftermath of elections are always attributed with symbolic value since they in a way indicate the orientation of the new government’s foreign policy. After the elections of Nov. 1, 2015, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s first official visit was made to Turkish Cyprus and second was to Azerbaijan, as has been the custom in the Turkish post-election period. However, after visiting these kin states, Davutoğlu paid a visit to Serbia on Dec. 28-29, 2015. The visit represented the growing multidimensionality of the countries’ bilateral ties, despite the remaining differences over the Kosovo issue and different views on the recent Turkish-Russian crisis.

Within this framework Davutoğlu’s visit carried special importance. First of all, the two countries decided to establish a High Level Strategic Council within which both cabinets would have joint meetings. Second, their determination to increase the trade volume and direct investments was emphasized. Third, according to the Serbian press, Serbia will convey Turkey’s message to Moscow for the normalization of relations. 

Meanwhile, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic’s statement that Turkey aimed to start a war between NATO and Russia over Syria by downing the Russian warplane is an important indication of how worried Serbia was about the incident. In fact, Serbia has been trying to pursue a balanced foreign policy between the West and Russia since the overthrow of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. On the one hand, it has been conducting membership negotiations with the EU and on the other it continues to have a “special relationship” with Moscow. Hence, any kind of crisis between the West and Russia has the potential to disturb the Serbian balanced attitude. In addition, the Serbian president’s statement is further proof of how Turkey’s crisis with Russia might complicate its relations with countries that attribute a special importance to ties with Moscow. 

Ties between Ankara and Belgrade have improved rapidly since 2000 after the downfall of the Milosevic regime. The fact that they had a friendly historical background facilitated the rehabilitation of bilateral relations. 2009 became a turning point because of Turkey’s new Balkan initiative, which consisted of the establishment of a trilateral mechanism among Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Turkey. This initiative was a reflection of the Turkish belief that without Serbian support and contribution, durable peace could not have been established in the region. 

It should be noted that the western Balkans slipped away from the attention the international community after the end of the Kosovo War. The events of 9/11 and the Arab uprisings radically shifted the attention of global actors. However, the region continues to occupy an important place in Turkey’s foreign policy agenda. As a reflection of its new activism in the Balkans, Turkey has tried to establish dialogue with all regional actors.

As a result of Turkey-initiated dialogue mechanisms at the level of presidents and foreign ministers, Sarajevo could appoint an ambassador to Belgrade, the Serbian parliament apologized with regard to Srebrenica and former Serbian President Boris Tadic attended the commemoration in Srebrenica together with then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2010.

Despite their diverging viewpoints with regard to Kosovo independence, ties between Ankara and Belgrade continued to improve substantially in a multidimensional way. The rising bilateral trade volume has been accompanied by a Turkish finance initiative, according to which Turkish Halkbank bought 77 percent of Serbian Cacanska Bank, hence providing fertile ground to attract more direct investment from Turkey. The opening of a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency in Belgrade, as well as the recent launch of Yunus Emre Cultural Center, was a recent example of the multiplication and mushrooming of ties.

Although both Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic stated that Serbia was a small country, Davutoğlu disagreed by stating that Serbia was “a rather big and important” country. In fact, the role of some countries in regional and global politics cannot be measured by their geographic and demographic sizes alone. Serbia is one of those countries which are “small” by realist power conceptions, but “great” in their role in the neighborhood. Davutoğlu’s visit is further proof of this fact.      

*Birgül Demirtaş, International Relations Department; TOBB, ETÜ.