Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo” – with these words, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has created a Balkan diplomatic storm. Speaking during a visit to Kosovo, which Turkey recognizes as independent but Serbia regards as an inalienable province, Erdogan has shaken previously cordial relations with Belgrade. Despite official protestations that his comments were misinterpreted, he may also have undermined Turkey’s own interests in the Western Balkans.
“I don’t think that there was any deliberate intent to provoke Serbia, but it nevertheless marks a very serious development in bilateral relations between Turkey and Serbia,” says James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow on South East European politics at the London School of Economics. “There will have to be a lot of diplomatic bridge building after this.”
Turkey is actively looking to increase its investments and trade with the region – indeed earlier this month Ankara’s deputy Prime Minister Bakir Bozdag announced several new Turkish projects in Serbia, and Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic pledged closer economic and diplomatic ties. Serbia’s bilateral trade with Turkey totals around €500 million ($690 million), though Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Serbia over the past decade came to only $49 million. Trade with Kosovo, a considerably smaller economy, came to just over €200 million ($276 million). Turkey has significant economic interests elsewhere in the Balkans, including in Bosnia, Albania, and Bulgaria.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic responded in no uncertain terms to Erdogan’s remarks, describing the words as “aggression without weapons,” and attacking the Turkish leadership.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Erdogan was merely asserting cultural ties and friendship between Turkey and Kosovo. Perhaps, but Turkish comments about the area often trigger strong responses due to historical legacy of centuries of Ottoman dominance of the region. Many Serbs blame the Turks for the “loss” of parts of Kosovo and Bosnia. Erdogan’s visit also came days before contentious local elections in Kosovo, which many ethnic Serbs are expected to boycott, despite Belgrade urging them to vote to make their voices heard.
President Nikolic has immediately suspended his participation in tripartite meetings between Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia. The meetings are part of a diplomatic initiative by Foreign Minister Davutoglu to improve political cooperation between Bosnia’s Serbs, Muslims, and Croats, an area where the US and EU have struggled. According to Dr. Ker-Lindsay, in exchange for Serbia’s cooperation on Bosnia, Turkey initially toned down its international promotion of Kosovo’s independence, aiming to maintain good diplomatic and economic relations with both Kosovo and Serbia. It also worked to soothe relations between Bosnian Muslim leaders and Belgrade.
Turkey’s efforts in Bosnia have otherwise not made huge 3win2u progress, but are now likely to make even less without Serbian support.