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Turkey: Seeking influence through mediation

The Turkish government has sought an increasingly prominent role in the Balkans.

Ahmet Davutoglu
Foreign Ministers Vuk Jeremic of Serbia (left), Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey and Sven Alkalaj of Bosnia (right) join hands during a meeting at the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara on Feb. 9, 2010. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

GRAZ, Austria — Later this month Turkey will host the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, for talks with Iran.

But the Middle East isn't the only region where the secular Muslim democracy hopes to bring parties to the negotiating table.

Turkey is increasingly assertive in the western Balkans, saying late last year it would be happy to mediate in bilateral talks between Serbia and Kosovo. While most experts welcome Turkey's growing involvement in the troubled region, some say its attempts to cast itself in the role of mediator are going too far.

Turkey has increased its presence in the region, particularly among the more sympathetic, substantially Muslim populations of Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo. Turkish broadcasters have increased their output in the Balkans. Every year several hundred Balkan students are given scholarships to Turkish universities, including some who hope to become religious instructors.

"The Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were success stories. Now we have to reinvent this," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a visit to Sarajevo in 2009, outlining Turkey's ambitions for the region over which its former empire held sway for centuries.

But Turkey's intentions are a source of suspicion for non-Muslims. Many in the Balkans consider the Ottomans outsiders who enslaved them. Serb nationalist leaders are wont to play on these suspicions, particularly Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who says Turkey hopes to undermine the autonomy of the Bosnian-Serb entity Republika Srpska from Muslim-dominated central state institutions.

Historic fears persist among the population. Fewer than 15 percent of Serbians consider Turkey a friendly power, according to a Gallup poll. The traveler who asks for a Turkish coffee in Serbia might hear the frosty reply, "you mean a Serb coffee?" In Bosnia and Kosovo, where there are substantial Muslim populations, Turkey is considered friendly by 40 percent and 85 percent of the populations, respectively.

But at the state level, the historic vision of the Turkish yoke has little sway, according to Daniel Korski, of the European Council on Foreign Relations: "The national stereotype in Serbia about the Ottomans has not really impacted on day-to-day foreign policy." Cooperation has progressed in the economic sphere, he said, and at the individual level Serbian tourists visit Turkey in the thousands each year. In December, Serbia became the last western Balkan country to enjoy visa-free travel with Turkey.

Others say Davutoglu's grand vision of reinventing what he sees as the glory days of the Ottoman empire, which he insists does not mean he is "neo-Ottoman," is fanciful.

"It is a kind of an imperial overstretch. They cannot deliver," said Dusan Reljic, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Reljic points to Turkey's attempt at resolving political deadlock in Bosnia after the the EU- and U.S.-brokered Butmir Process collapsed in autumn 2009. Serbia's President Boris Tadic and Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Muslim representative in Bosnia's rotating presidency, met in Istanbul and signed the "Istanbul Declaration" last April. "But nothing happened after that," Reljic said, largely because Silajdzic did not have the consent of his Bosnian Serb counterpart.

"The whole stunt was simply useful to everyone at that particular moment," Reljic said. "It was utilitarian on all sides, but there was little delivery."

The scheme, Reljic said, was arranged to impress the 9 million or so Turkish citizens with west Balkan heritage. At the same time, Reljic added, it gave Silajdzic a way to boost his profile ahead of October elections, although not enough to retake his post. Serbia, meanwhile, was able to show the EU, which like Turkey it hopes to join, that it is able to cooperate with Muslims.

Turkey's offer to mediate in EU-sponsored bilateral talks between Kosovo and Serbia should be seen in a similar light, Reljic said. "I don't see the need for Turkey to come in. If the talks start, then they will start with the facilitation of the EU and, somewhere in the second row, not visible, the U.S." The United States would not welcome "interference" from Turkey, he said.

An expanded economic role for Turkey would be more widely welcomed. Turkish exports to the western Balkans now stand at just $6.9 billion and imports at $3.4 billion. Investment too is at a low level, although Turkey's diplomatic delegations are now in the habit of bringing a party of investors from the Persian Gulf and other Islamic countries.

More important to Turkey's interests is the land route the region provides for transporting Turkish goods to the EU. Mutual interest in this road link has delivered results. Last summer the Serbian government agreed to build roads with 85 percent of the capital loaned by the Eximbank, Turkey's export credit agency. The Balkans' role as a conduit might expand if a gas pipeline is built bringing gas from Russian and central Asia via Turkey.

It may be Turkey's ability to broker business and trade deals rather than broker peace that allows it to regain a western Balkan foothold.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/turkey/110111/turkey-the-balkans-serbia-kosovo