Two-day visit by Turkish president paves the way for better cooperation between Turkey and Serbia
A two-day visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Serbia and his meeting with President Aleksandar Vucic has caused quite a commotion in the Balkans. This visit was on the agenda of the regional media long before Erdogan arrived in Serbia. The reason this bilateral meeting has drawn a lot of attention is the fact that the two leaders are going to speak about issues that will bear implications for the greater region.
Turks feeding Balkans' energy hunger
When the idea for the visit was born during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, it was agreed that two leaders should sit and speak about energy issues in the region, a great concern for both countries, especially after the EU's shooting down of the "South Stream Project" as a reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Eyes of regional politicians were set on this project as the majority of countries are almost totally dependent on Russian gas.
However, the EU's dismissal has let the region go hungry for energy without an alternative. Soon after Putin approached Turkey, Moscow offered Ankara to build an alternative route that would bypass Ukraine and directly go through Turkish territory, giving Turkey the option to export this gas to Europe.
The Turkish government, at that time, in slight isolation after the crackdowns on the notorious Gezi Park protests, accepted this offer, but since then not many concrete steps have been taken. There was even a period when the project was cancelled as part of Kremlin's countermeasures against Turkey for downing a Russian jet over Syrian territory in November 2015.
After two regional powers had a wintry period in bilateral relations, normalization came when the Kremlin stood by Turkey in the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, after which two countries decided to strengthen their ties like never before.
The two countries committed themselves to deepening their relations further than before the plane incident of 2015.
As the clearest sign of the softening in the relations, most visibly in military cooperation, the Turkish side announced plans to buy the Russian S-400 missile system.
This improvement in relations certainly impacted on the Balkans, which we can follow through Erdogan's visit, and which has coincided with a time when officials in Belgrade announced their interest in energy routes.
Although it was the South Stream being discussed a while ago, now Erdogan is the person to speak with.
The problem of energy is the big one for the Balkan countries. After the shutting down of the South Stream, the Ionian route -- another alternative route that the EU favors -- has become the focus.
On the other hand, the EU fears construction of the Turkish stream would strengthen the position of Ankara and Moscow in the region, at the expense of Brussels.
The EU is in an unfavorable position as it effectively forbids the Balkan countries from getting closer to Turkey or Russia, and thus from reaping any economic benefits, and it is not offering any solutions either.
This is an attitude that further deepens the disappointment with the overall EU-membership processes. EU members themselves -- and not only Balkan countries -- are in need of a bigger number of energy sources.
Brussels is acting like a jealous policeman in its Western Balkans politics, yelling at everyone who tries to invest in the region.
As Serbia's Minister of Mining and Energy Aleksandar Antic pointed out in an interview with Serbian news portal Blic, the issue of energy is becoming less and less of an issue of economics, but more and more a political and geopolitical issue.
President Erdogan's visit is not important only from the aspect of energy, but wider economic issues are expected to be discussed.
The Turkish president brought just under 200 businesspeople with him.
Erdogan and Vucic also enlarged a free-trade agreement that was signed back in 2010 with Tadic's government.
Turkey also aims to buy sunflower oil directly from Serbia, contrary to the previous practice of buying it from Bosnia.
Trilateral economic cooperation between Serbia, Bosnia and Turkey will certainly be mentioned. In recent years Bosnia and the overall condition of Bosniaks have become unavoidable topics in talks between Belgrade and Ankara.
Overall, Turkey wants to bring together Sarajevo and Belgrade in their economic interests, as is proved by the recent initiative to launch a joint trade office of Bosnia and Serbia in Istanbul as well as by many other trilateral meetings.
Ankara wants Bosnia and Serbia to act together.
On the road
The highway that would connect the Serbian capital with Sarajevo is another important project that the Serbian and Turkish ministers of communication are expected to sign.
Turkey has until now shown the biggest interest in building this highway. One of the first issues that arose was the route of the highway.
In the Balkans, everything is a political issue. Since the announcement of the project, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik started lobbying for a route that would pass through the territory of Republika Srpska, and would further strengthen the economic ties between this entity and Serbia.
When asked about the project, he said: “It is not our priority; some kind of highway that would end down there [Sarajevo]... but it should pass through the territory of Republika Srpska.”
By securing his favorite route, he would guarantee better communication with Serbia which would, in turn, strengthen his position against the central authority in Sarajevo, and further weaken the Bosnian state's authority.
The Bosniak politician understood the real threats of this route and lobbied for another route that would pass through the federation.
There was even an idea that the route could go through the Sandzak region, and thus connect the Muslim Bosniaks living there to their mainland.
The project through Sandzak is an old idea, supported by the Bosniak leaders in Serbia, but whether Belgrade will allow Bosniaks in Sandzak to build stronger lines of communication with Sarajevo through Serbia is another question.
Recently, a former mufti and now an MP in the Serbian parliament, Muamer Zukorlic, visited Bosnian President Bakir Izetbegovic to suggest the 'Sandzak route', but apparently there is not much that Izetbegovic can do on his own, as this is a decision that the leaders of the three countries will have to make together.
It remains to be seen with Erdogan's visit what options would prevail. But, as in energy, the region is hungry for road infrastructure as well. There are many expectations from Erdogan's meeting and the whole region will be following it very carefully.
As recent economic and infrastructure projects have shown, Ankara might embrace a premise in its foreign policy, to tie Bosnian economy with the Serbian, and as a general vision to reconcile Serbs and Bosniaks through economic cooperation.
However, a question begs itself at this point, and that is, how Bosnian economy, already a few times smaller than that of Serbia, can compete, particularly given that Belgrade would always favor Bosnian Serbs -- read Dodik -- rather than Sarajevo.
Add to that Dodik's plans for the highway to pass through Republika Srpska, which might further complicate the problem. Strengthening the communication and economic ties of Republika Srpska to Serbia would certainly benefit Dodik's ambitions of dissolving Bosnia and Herzegovina, a scenario that Turkey usually chooses not to see.
Historic trip to Sandzak region
Another important part of Erdogan's trip will be his visit to Novi Pazar, a city he last visited in 2010 as a prime minister. It is expected to be a very sensitive visit.
Turkey's most recent attempts at mediating between the two Islamic communities in Sandzak had not ended in a desired manner.
Thus, the two communities still remain divided. This "forsaken" region has great expectations from Turkey, from highways to an airport, from helping to reconcile its divided politicians to helping the unification of its Islamic communities.
This will be a chance to see what degree of progress has been made since the previous high-level visit.
The strategy that Ankara will follow through after Erdogan's visit might determine the future developments in the region.
Success lies in the ability of Erdogan to influence Vucic on his stance over Republika Srpska, Dodik and Bosnia's unity.
Ankara should press Vucic to find a route of future cooperation between regional countries that would weaken separatist ambitions, like Dodik's, or new arrangements that would benefit all sides and would not leave anyone at the mercy of others.
One thing that should always be in mind is that Ankara must be careful not to unintentionally benefit Serbia at the expense of Bosnian interests, and thus indirectly benefit Dodik's separatist ambitions.
At the moment, Erdogan is in a superior economic position to ask Vucic to pressure Dodik to cooperate more with the central government in Sarajevo.