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Seeking Increased Influence, Erdogan Pledges Trade, Investments With Serbia


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic pose during a signing ceremony in Belgrade on October 10.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged increased investment and trade with Serbia as Turkey looks to solidify its influence in the Balkans.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Belgrade on October 10 after talks with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, Erdogan said the current bilateral trade volume of $850 million was "not enough" and that the two countries should target more than five times that amount.

Turkey already has a strong influence among fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo and Erdogan hopes his two-day visit to Serbia, a mainly Orthodox Christian country, will expand his country's role in the Balkans.

Serbia has ambitions of joining the European Union while it balances ties with traditional Orthodox ally Russia with its need for investment to boost economic growth that has yet to recover from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

"Together with Serbia and with the entire Balkans, we want to make steps to resolve all the problems," Erdogan told reporters in Belgrade.

"We do not want any division of the Balkans or that someone might see those countries as their sphere of influence. We oppose all those who want that," Erdogan added later on at a business forum.

Belgrade-Sarajevo Highway

Serbian officials and the Turkish delegation, which includes eight cabinet ministers and 185 business leaders, signed several contracts, investment deals, and memorandums of understanding in Belgrade.

The accords pave the way for the building of a Belgrade-Sarajevo highway and include an agreement on energy cooperation, as well as an amended free-trade accord that will open the Turkish market to several Serbian goods.

Erdogan and Vucic also signed a declaration to create a body that would coordinate joint projects.

The Turkish leader also raised the prospect of natural gas supplies to Serbia via the Turkish Stream pipeline, a joint project between Turkey and Russia.

"We are discussing it with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin ... and I believe we will want to deliver the gas to Serbia in the shortest possible term," the Turkish president said.

Under Erdogan, Ankara has stepped up its efforts to increase its clout in the Balkans, where many of the countries have historical and religious links with Turkey from centuries of Ottoman rule.

"This is not 1389, but 2017," Vucic said, referring to the year when the Ottoman occupation of Serbia started. "Today, Serbia considers Turkey as its friend."

Vucic promised "there will be no cooperation with followers" of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of organizing a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Gulen denies the claim.

On October 11, Erdogan will travel to the Serbian part of Sandzak, a region divided between Serbia and Montenegro and which has a Muslim majority. During his trip there, he will visit the region's largest city, Novi Pazar.

With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters
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