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Look Who's Coming To Dinner In Istanbul

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center), Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) and the Bosnian Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, pose for a photo before a luncheon in Istanbul on January 29.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted two Balkan leaders at his presidential palace in Istanbul this week.

But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Bakir Izetbegovic, one of three constituent members of Bosnia's presidency, were an odd couple of visitors in more ways than one.

And it raised concerns in some quarters, for a few reasons.

For a start, it's unclear why Izetbegovic should have been Vucic's counterpart to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina, since he doesn't currently chair that country's tripartite presidency.

He is, however, the leader of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Bosnia's leading Muslim party.

So Izetbegovic's pairing with the elected president of Serbia could be interpreted by some as an implicit suggestion that ethnic Serbs -- in Serbia and, for instance, in the majority Serb portion of Bosnia, Republika Srpska -- were being represented alongside (most or all of) Bosnia's Muslims.

The importance of ethnic and religious identities over a national identity and other, civic forms of representation is an unfortunate legacy of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war.

'Bosnia's Wardens'

The idea that any conversation about Bosnia must involve neighboring Serbia and Croatia -- as brokers but also as defenders of the interests of ethnic Serbs and ethnic Croats in Bosnia -- is a dangerous one.

It appears to gloss over the fact that the peace deal in question was signed by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the first of whom went on trial for war crimes before his death in a Hague prison cell, and the other of whom fostered wartime designs on a breakup of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines.

Now, it seems, their participation in that negotiated peace settlement more than two decades ago risks being interpreted as having granted their perceived successors roles in perpetuity as Bosnia's wardens. In that context, it is notable that Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarevic met with Erdogan in Ankara just a few weeks earlier, on January 9.

But meeting with Vucic and Izetbegovic together must have seemed to the Turkish leader like having the wife and the mistress under the same roof. Because, despite indications that Turkey's relationship with Bosnia is built partly on shared history and culture and nostalgia in some quarters for the Ottoman Empire, Turkish investments are far larger in Serbia.

In fact, Turkey is 11th on the list of investors into Bosnia, accounting for 3 percent of total foreign investment. (Austria is first, followed by the former Yugoslav republics Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, then Russia and Germany.)

Love For Bosnia, Money For Serbia

So, even if Erdogan somehow regards himself as the protector of Bosnia’s Muslims, Turkish businessmen appear to see greater potential rewards in Serbia.

Some have observed that Bosnia appears to get the love, while Serbia looks to be getting the money.

"Serbia is the larger and more stable country, and Turkish capital knows this," Sarajevo-based analyst Hajrudin Somun said.

Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan presses the flesh on a trip to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in May 2015.
Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan presses the flesh on a trip to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in May 2015.

Part of the problem rests with Bosnia itself, of course. The planned construction of a Belgrade-Sarajevo highway, which Turkey was prepared to co-finance, has stalled due in part to the inability of Bosnia's two entities (Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation) to agree on a route. Similar local entanglements have slowed meat exports from Bosnia to Turkey.

Almost three years ago, Erdogan traveled to both Serbia and Bosnia accompanied by a large trade delegation, and various agreements and memorandums were signed in both Sarajevo and Belgrade. Yet economic exchanges with the former lag significantly behind the latter, despite all the promises.

Wider Strategic Interest

Turkish mediation between Serbia and the Bosniak leadership in Sarajevo could eventually prove to be Ankara's most important contribution to regional stability. Such a role also might serve Erdogan's wider strategic interest in emphasizing Turkish clout on the international stage.

But there are also potential risks to Ankara's influence and the possible benefits to Bosnians themselves.

"Turkey should support the interests of Bosnia as a whole, not only the particular interests of any group," Lejla Ramic Mesihovic, executive director of Bosnian Foreign Policy Initiative, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Ramic Mesihovic warned that Erdogan's perceived approach could prove divisive: "Any favoritism of that kind has a detrimental effect on Bosnian society, and even Bosniaks should recognize that they gain nothing unless the entire country is seen to benefit [from the relationship with Turkey]."

Zijad Becirovic, the director of the Ljubljana-based Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, said that Bosnia's long history of foreign powers intervening in its affairs, often to disastrous effect, makes Bosnians sensitive to outside meddling. He urged both Turkey and the Bosniak political leadership to heed such concerns, particularly as it concerns any talk of special relationships.

But Erdogan has his own vision and agenda, and he has strived to translate Turkish economic and military might into political influence. And a troubled nearby region with Turkish historical ties and economic interests like the Western Balkans could provide an ideal stage for a display of diplomatic gravitas.

In that sense, the photo op with Vucic and Izetbegovic might have been meant as much for Brussels and European eyes as for Balkan audiences: Erdogan showing Europe, seemingly cool to Erdogan’s government, that Turkey is capable of resolving conflicts and keeping the peace in its own backyard.

Whether such mediation -- particularly if the negotiating parties are cast as leaders of ethnic groups rather than as representatives of multiethnic states -- is in the long-term interests of any Western Balkan countries seems to be a secondary consideration.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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