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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.
People take part in a mourning procession for Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica on January 17.

Mitrovica has been gripped by shock and fear since the killing of a moderate Serbian politician in that northern Kosovo municipality with an ethnic Serbian majority.

Few residents have been willing to speak to journalists, but one of the questions that residents are said to be asking privately is: If they could kill him, what's in store for us?

Mitrovica is a divided city, a front line in the extended standoff between Belgrade and Pristina. Hardly a month goes by without an incident there, despite the presence of EU and NATO forces.

Its people grapple with the constant threat of violence. But damage is more often material -- a hand grenade strikes fear but doesn't injure, or a vehicle is set on fire. Oliver Ivanovic, an ethnic Serb politician fluent in Albanian before he was gunned down outside his office, was Mitrovica's highest-profile casualty in a long time.

Vucic's 'Kosovo Moment'

The president of neighboring Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, was quick to pay a visit to Mitrovica in a move that critics suggested echoed too closely a visit by then-Yugoslav communist leader Slobodan Milosevic in 1987, with animosities high at that time, too.

Zagreb-based commentator Dejan Jovic went so far as to tweet that Vucic "had his Kosovo moment," recalling Milosevic's words on that day, 30 years ago, when the Serbian strongman reassured ethnic Serbs in Kosovo that "no one should dare to beat you again." It was a performance that many say set the tone for a decade of war and destruction fueled by nationalism throughout the Balkans.

On his visit to Mitrovica this weekend, Vucic lay flowers at the spot where Ivanovic was shot. He also met with Kosovar Serb representatives in the village of Laplje Selo, near Pristina*.

But Vucic's tone was far more restrained and conciliatory, and he appeared to demonstrate a desire to listen. Unlike the riotous crowds and nationalist slogans that greeted an ascendant Milosevic in 1987, Vucic was presented with a litany of common grievances -- including concerns over rising unemployment, lawlessness, crime, and general insecurity.

He did not initially meet with any opposition Kosovar politicians, although a meeting has now been scheduled with one of them, Momcilo Trajkovic, who had addressed an open letter to Vucic. He will reportedly have a chance to speak to Vucic in person on January 23.

Indeed, Mitrovica's problems are seemingly broader than the dispute between Serbian and Albanian speakers. Rok Zupancic, from the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, sees the city's general lawlessness as the main issue. To underscore his point, Zupancic quotes from Ivanovic in an interview not long before the latter's death:

"Let me be clear. The people [Serbs in northern Kosovo] are not afraid of the Albanians but of the Serbs, the local strongmen and the criminals, who drive around in jeeps without license plates. Illegal drugs are being sold at every corner, which is every parent's fear. This is nothing new, but the scale of the problem is greater than ever, along with the arrogance of these people. The police see what is going on but do nothing...."

More broadly, and potentially far-reaching for the region's future, EU-sponsored talks between Belgrade and Pristina that had been bogged down for some time were quickly postponed again following Ivanovic's shooting -- a development that might suit hard-liners just fine.

Ivanovic was a moderate, and as such had been marginalized on the larger political stage; but he also clearly had many friends and bitter enemies on both sides of Kosovo's ethnic divide.

Among Ivanovic's friends was Nenad Canak, the leader of the opposition League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV). Canak has already raised the question of who stood to profit from the breakdown in internationally mediated talks and rising tensions in northern Kosovo.

"I won't even start with the old rule that when there's a contract killing, it's usually the killer who first offers their condolences," Canak said.

Who Profits?

Canak then cast a suspicious eye toward Moscow, without providing any evidence of a connection. But he speculated that Russia might seize an "opportunity to act as the peacemaker, bringing order and calm" in return for "the international community...turn[ing] a blind eye to Crimea and the Donbas and accept[ing] the usurpation of parts of the territory of a neighboring country, which Russia supports."

Canak also pointed to evidence of what he sees as Russia's "serious investment" in the wider Balkan region, including reports of a 5-year-old center in the southern Serbian city of Nis that some have alleged is being used for spying. (Moscow denies the allegation.)

Meanwhile, Vuk Draskovic, the president of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement in Serbia, said he saw Ivanovic's murder as an act of political terrorism reminiscent of the modus operandi of Milosevic's secret services from the 1990s. The shots fired at Ivanovic in Mitrovica were "[also] aimed at the Brussels agreement, the internal dialogue on Kosovo's future, the stability of the region as a whole, and Serbia's European path," Draskovic said.

He added, "Oliver Ivanovic was a voice of reason, a respected leader of Kosovo Serbs, committed to dialogue with Albanians and to promoting the rule of law in a place where such an attitude earned him many enemies."

Draskovic can at least say that he knows of what he speaks, having himself been a target of an attempted political assassination in the Milosevic years. Like many others in Serbia and beyond, Draskovic wants those responsible for Ivanovic's death to be brought to justice as swiftly as possible, and for that to happen, cooperation between Serbian and Kosovo authorities is indispensable.

*CORRECTION: This story has been amended to correct the translation and location of the village of Laplje Selo.

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

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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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