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Turkey's Erdogan Gets Warm Welcome In Serbia's Mostly Muslim Sandzak Region


Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their visit to Novi Pazar on October 11
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their visit to Novi Pazar on October 11

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 11 received a warm welcome as he visited a predominantly Muslim region in southwestern Serbia.

Thousands of people waving Turkish and Serbian flags lined the streets of Novi Pazar, the largest city in the Sandzak region, which Erdogan visited together with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic.

"Sandzak is one of the bridges that connect us," Erdogan said. "We can all see how our emotional connection has had a positive effect on our bilateral ties."

Vucic conceded that he “will not be greeted even half as [warmly]” as Erdogan, and pledged to work “in the interest of all citizens of any religion and nation."

Erdogan is on a two-day visit to Serbia as Ankara looks to solidify its influence in the Balkans, where many of the countries have historic and religious links with Turkey from centuries of Ottoman rule.

In the 1990s, Turkey backed Bosnian Muslims in the war that pitted them against the Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.

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

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.

"We have felt at home during this visit to Serbia," Erdogan said in his speech in Novi Pazar, where billboards greeting him were erected. "We will preserve our friendship."

"Today, Serbia considers Turkey as its friend," Vucic said on October 10 after holding talks with Erdogan in Belgrade.

In the Serbian capital, Erdogan pledged increased investment and said that the $800 million of trade between the two countries "is not enough" and that it should increase sharply in the near future.

Serbian officials and the Turkish delegation signed several contracts, investment deals, and memorandums of understanding.

The accords pave the way to 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.

In Novi Pazar, Erdogan thanked Vucic for supporting him during a failed coup attempt in July 2016 that Ankara blames on the movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denied involvement.

Vucic promised in Belgrade that "there will be no cooperation with followers of Gulen."

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP