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Belgrade Media Report 11 October

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LOCAL PRESS

• Brnabic: Community of Serb Municipalities backbone of Brussels agreement (Tanjug/RTS/Beta)
• Unabated interest of European MPs for European path of Serbia (Tanjug)
• Brnabic, Hahn: Serbia’s EU integration process based on three basic principles (RTS/Beta)
• Erdogan in Novi Pazar: This is my native land (B92/RTS)
• Wallstrom: Kosovo and Catalonia not to be compared (Beta)
• Spain grateful to Serbia for delaying EU letter (Politika)

REGIONAL PRESS

Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Ivanic says Dodik’s call to Serbs to leave B&H Court and Prosecutor’s Office is not adequate solution (TV1)
• SDA slams Dodik for announcing suspension of work of Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H in RS (TV1)
• IC’ reactions to Dodik’s call for suspension of work of Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H (BHT1)
• Mandic: Biggest problem for registration of military property in RS is fact that there is no law that binds RS institutions to respect and implement decisions of Constitutional Court of B&H (FTV)
Croatia
• “Istria is not Catalonia, we just want our money” (Expres)
Montenegro
• Knezevic: I am not guilty, process is fake (RTCG)
Albania
• President Meta’s official visit to Kosovo; Demarcation, unfair condition for visas liberalization (ADN)
• Basha: Appointment of Ruci as speaker, shameful act (ATA)
• Albanian government gives up, recognizes Bulgarians as a minority (ATA)

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

• Erdogan touts Turkey helping push ‘prosperous’ Balkans (Anadolu Agency)
• Erdogan in the Balkans: A neo-Ottoman quest? (Al Jazeera)

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LOCAL PRESS

 

Brnabic: Community of Serb Municipalities backbone of Brussels agreement (Tanjug/RTS/Beta)

 

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic On Tuesday conveyed to the members of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) in Brussels the message of Serbia’s determination to move towards its strategic goal – joining the EU. Brnabic said that our country wants to become an equal member that will support the EU, and not seek the benefits of the membership. She said that Serbia is deeply committed to cooperation and stability in the region and the Berlin Process, while the strategic goal remains to be the EU membership. Brnabic expressed her hope that on 14 October, after the end of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), she will be able to announce the exact percentage of pension increase, as well as of salaries for public sector employees. Asked about the Belgrade-Pristina relations, Brnabic called Kosovo to implement its part of the obligations stemming from the Brussels agreement. Recalling that Serbia signed the Brussels agreement four years ago, she said that this was not easy and that this was, as she put it, a very brave political decision. “Pristina has not even started working on the establishment of the Community of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and Metohija, while Serbia is still asked ‘what is your stand on this’, ‘will you block them in UNESCO and Interpol’, yet Pristina is the one that is not fulfilling the things that are the backbone of the Brussels Agreement.

At the same time she reiterated that Serbia supports the unity of B&H, along with the assessment that cooperation with the Republika Srpska is not in violation with Serbia’s principled stand as the country signatory of the Dayton Agreement.

Relations between Serbia and Russia are traditionally good and a cultural and religious closeness also exists between the two countries, but this does not bring into question Serbia’s determination for EU membership, Brnabic said in Brussels. Brnabic, in answer to the questions of the MEPs in the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, cited the results of a recently carried out survey which show that 49% of the Serbian citizens and over 80% of the MPs in Serbian parliament are in favor of joining the EU, while 66% of the citizens support the reforms the realization of which is the condition for membership in the EU. After objections that Serbia was also regularly holding military exercises with Russia, she responded by pointing to the fact that Serbia had carried out a much greater number of military exercises with NATO and the US, than with Russia. So, for instance, in 2016, Serbia had 16 military activities with various countries, out of which nine with the United States, two each with the Balkan countries and NATO within the Partnership for Peace program, one with Hungary and two exercises with Russia, Brnabic said. The situation is similar this year as well – Serbia took part in 15 military exercises, out of which 13 with NATO, and as part of this seven bilaterally with the US, while two exercises were held with Russia, she said.

The MEPs should therefore bring their conclusions on the basis of facts, and not impressions, concluded Brnabic. “We do not want to be a member of NATO, we wish to preserve our military neutrality, and these are the figures which prove that we are truly militarily neutral”, she said.

 

Unabated interest of European MPs for European path of Serbia (Tanjug)

 

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic met yesterday with Chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and European Parliament’s Rapporteur for Serbia David McAllister, with which her first official visit to Brussels as prime minister has started. Brnabic, together with Minister for European Integration Jadranka Joksimovic, talked with McAllister about the process of Serbia’s accession to the European Union and the reform processes of our country along that path, as well as about strengthening economic and political cooperation in the Western Balkan region. She reiterated that in recent years Serbia has adopted and implemented a very ambitious economic reform agenda and it is making great efforts to build a society based on the rule of law and a modern and prosperous state. She also referred to the events in Spain, and underlined that Serbia’s principled stance is to respect international law and that it supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Spain, although some countries did not do the same in the case of the illegal and unilateral self-declaration of independence of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija. She stressed that EU membership is a foreign policy priority of Serbia and that Belgrade does everything to maintain the positive dynamics of the negotiations and the opening of chapters.

McAllister told Brnabic and Joksimovic that there is unabated interest of European MPs for the European path of Serbia, especially after the publication of more concrete prospects for membership, expressed through the announcement of the enlargement strategy for Serbia and Montenegro by Jean-Claude Juncker. He stressed that such an important signal will certainly be accompanied by an even greater interest in the reform processes in Serbia, which are already recognized as something that has brought good and concrete results in the field of economy. He stressed that Serbia is an important country for the EU in the context of a geo-strategic and geopolitical position, and that the European road is therefore significant both for Serbia and the EU, along with all the occasional problems and obstacles along the way. He expressed confidence that Serbia will open the chapters for which it is ready by the end of the year.

 

Brnabic, Hahn: Serbia’s EU integration process based on three basic principles (RTS/Beta)

 

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said after the meeting with European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, that the opening of new chapters in Serbia’s accession negotiations with the EU is expected by the end of the year. At the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, Brnabic said that this would be an important signal for our citizens and the administration that has worked on it. She stated that she sees the European integration of Serbia as a process based on three basic principles, on economic development and macroeconomic stability, public administration reform and the rule of law. According to Brnabic, in the last three years the best results have been achieved in the area of macroeconomic stability, much of it has been done on public administration reform, and much more needs to be done in order to have a public administration that our citizens and the economy deserve. Now is the time to focus on the third pillar, that is, the rule of law, Brnabic said, adding that Serbia is not working on these reforms for the EU, but in order to have its own more transparent, more efficient and predictable judiciary. She added that Serbia cannot make progress towards the EU and in the field of the economy without regional stability and that is why our country has a leading role in the Berlin Process.

Hahn pointed out that Serbia is well positioned as one of the leading countries in the process of EU accession, noting that it will soon become part of the European family. He expressed his gratitude to Serbia for its key role in the stability of the region, as well as satisfaction for the fact that Brnabic’s first official visit as prime minister is to Brussels, as this shows the significance and importance she attaches to the relationship with the EU.

 

Erdogan in Novi Pazar: This is my native land (B92/RTS)

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Novi Pazar, where he said that Turkey and the Sandzak region have special relations. “Novi Pazar is my native land. Your happiness is our happiness, your pain is our pain,” Erdogan said. Erdogan and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Wednesday a meeting with mayors and presidents of the municipalities of Novi Pazar, Raska, Kraljevo, Sjenica, Tutin, Prijepolje, Nova Varos and Priboj. Prior to this, a large number of Novi Pazar residents welcomed by two presidents. Novi Pazar is today decorated with billboards with Erdogan’s images, flags of Serbia and Turkey, and Bosniak flags. “I know that I will not be welcomed half as well as the president of Turkey, but I have enough courage and clear conscience to be able to come before you and tell you that I have worked and will work in the best interests of you and every citizen of Serbia,” Aleksandar Vucic told the citizens of Novi Pazar in a joint address with Erdogan. “Our job is to work as much as we can and to develop all parts of Serbia and invest more and more money,” the President said and announced a project to build the Pozega-Boljare road. “We want to connect this area with Belgrade and Sarajevo and Podgorica,” Vucic said.  “Our job is to build roads, hospitals, kindergartens and schools, and we will continue to work and there is nothing more important than that,” he said.

 

Wallstrom: Kosovo and Catalonia not to be compared (Beta)

 

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said that Kosovo and Catalonia should not be compared, as their situations differed. “We insist there must be a dialogue (between Spanish and Catalan representatives). I think you should not compare (Kosovo and Catalonia), as the situations differ, just as all situations do. If a situation involves armed conflicts and opportunities for war crimes, that’s one kind of situation. Here, on the other hand, you can use a dialogue to prevent the worst from happening in Spain,” the Foreign Minister said. Minister Wallstrom, who together with her Finnish counterpart, Timo Soini, visited Serbia and Macedonia, said to Beta that the two wanted the Western Balkans to be a theme in the European Union, confident that the states of the region should be encouraged to continue reforms and the EU integration process. “We appreciate these meetings very much, because they make it possible for us to understand better the positions of these states’ leaders, offering also an opportunity to convey our own messages to them. We can tell them that it’s absolutely vital to continue to fight corruption, because they can hardly get long-term investment if they don’t. They also need to ensure the rule of law and support human rights at home,” the Minister said. The Swedish Foreign Minister said it was clear that the Western Balkans faced many security challenges, and that their situations differed in the context of the EU and NATO integration, while the consequences of their dramatic history were also visible.

 

Spain grateful to Serbia for delaying EU letter (Politika)

 

Spain is grateful to Serbia for not delivering a letter to the EU regarding its position that the cases of Kosovo and Catalonia cannot be compared, Spanish Ambassador to Serbia Miguel Fuertes Suarez told Politika. “Spain is grateful to the government of Serbia for not raising this issue at the moment, as President Aleksandar Vucic has already explained,” the Spanish Ambassador said.

 

REGIONAL PRESS

 

Ivanic says Dodik’s call to Serbs to leave B&H Court and Prosecutor’s Office is not adequate solution (TV1)

 

B&H Presidency member Mladen Ivanic was asked to comment on the call of RS President Milorad Dodik to Serbs to leave the Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H following the acquittal of wartime commander of the Army of the Republic of B&H Naser Oric. Ivanic assessed that Dodik should have first talked to those people to find out whether they are willing to accept such stance. Ivanic added that this call is not an adequate solution but he noted that he is afraid that a reasonable approach of the Alliance of Changes (SzP) had with regard to the referendum on the Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H is fading away because arguments supporting it no longer exist. He said that it is up to the ruling structure in Banja Luka to propose future steps and opposition parties will decide whether to accept it. Ivanic argued that the Court of B&H rendered some verdicts in the past, not only related to war crimes, which were “pure politics” and he reminded that not a single Bosniak politician or general was ever sentenced for any of major crimes.

 

SDA slams Dodik for announcing suspension of work of Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H in RS (TV1)

 

SDA assessed that the call of RS President Milorad Dodik to Serbs to leave the Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H following the acquittal of wartime commander of the Army B&H Naser Oric and also to suspend the work of the Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H in the RS has “crossed the line”. SDA stated that Dodik is using an individual court case, which was completed in line with all procedures, to reactivate old topics. SDA noted that his latest call is something the international community in B&H should deal with. Vice President of SDA Safet Softic assessed that Dodik presented “anti-Dayton statements and I think that both the High Representative and representatives of the international community have certain obligations when it comes to this matter”. Softic also said that Dodik is privatizing the RS institutions and using them to score points for the upcoming elections.

 

IC’ reactions to Dodik’s call for suspension of work of Court of B&H and Prosecutor’s Office of B&H (BHT1)

 

After the acquittal of Naser Oric on Monday, RS President Milorad Dodik stated that the referendum on work of the Court of B&H and the Prosecutor’s Office of B&H will be organized. The Court of B&H stated that this judicial institution works professionally, in line with evidence provided by the Prosecutor’s Office of B&H rather than based on political and media speculations or pressures.  The US Embassy to B&H expressed support to work of judicial institutions in B&H, calling on everyone in B&H to respect court decisions and judicial institutions. The Embassy assessed that calls on judges and prosecutors to leave institutions at state level are irresponsible and are not in interest of victims or their families. “Transparent and fair trials before the courts are necessary for further process of reconciliation, and future of this country”, the Embassy concluded.

High Representative Valentin Inzko once again warned that the RS National Assembly’s decision on calling referendum on B&H judiciary and on powers of the High Representative is clear violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Inzko explained he informed the UN Security Council (UN SC) about it, and emphasized that the decision should be put out of force as soon as possible.

 

Mandic: Biggest problem for registration of military property in RS is fact that there is no law that binds RS institutions to respect and implement decisions of Constitutional Court of B&H (FTV)

 

B&H Attorney General Mladjen Mandic talked about the registration of prospective military property in B&H. Asked to comment whether this matter is being used for political purposes mostly and whether that is the only reason this process is halted, Mandic said: “I, as an attorney, can only comment from a legal stand point. Whether politics are the reason, the politicians should be asked that question. The facts are these, by now the Office of Attorney General of B&H has, at the request of the B&H Ministry of Defense, handed over 41 requests for the registration and additional three that are being processed. We do not have the complete documentation for that, and those are polygons in Pale, Posusje and Sarajevo. By now, 25 of those requests have been validly resolved, 20 of them were registered, 5 have not been registered yet and we have filed a complaint about that. One of the five is in the Federation of B&H, that is the stationary center for communications in Konjuh, and four locations are in Republika Srpska (RS), two military barracks in Doboj, military barracks in Bijeljina and military barracks in Bileca,” said Mandic. Mandic stated that there is no problem with the registration of the military property in the Federation of B&H, but that the problem is that no prospective military property was registered in the RS by now and the Office of Attorney General of B&H has sent a request to the RS Administration for Geodetic and Property Affairs to start the process of the registration of the military property in the RS.  When asked to comment on who is halting and making problems in the process of the registration of the military property in Han Pijesak, Mandic stated that the Office of Attorney General of B&H has no jurisdiction in the RS institutions and added: “The thing that the Office of Attorney General of B&H can do is, at the request of the B&H Ministry of Defense, send a request to the RS Administration for Geodetic and Property Affairs. The job would be done there. In the RS, by now, no prospective military property was registered and when they refuse, we use the legal means and that is an appeal, after that lawsuit.” Mandic said that he believes the process to registration of the military property in the RS will be very slow and difficult, and in the Federation of B&H there will be no problems, except the one stationary center for communications. Mandic believes that the biggest problem for the registration of the military property in the RS is the fact that there is no law that binds the RS institutions to respect and implement the decisions of the Constitutional Court of B&H and that problem should be resolved by the politicians in B&H.

 

“Istria is not Catalonia, we just want our money” (Expres)

 

The leader of the most significant regional party in the Croatian parliament speaks openly about their goals and plans. Boris Miletic, President of the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), the largest and most successful regional party in Croatia, spoke in an interview about the law which his party sent to the parliamentary procedure this week and which would make the controversial “For Homeland Ready” slogan punishable by imprisonment, and about the situation in Catalonia and whether Istria was in any way similar, reports Express on October 10, 2017. IDS has drafted a proposal to supplement the Criminal Code and introduce prison sentences for the propagation of Nazi, Fascist and Ustasha symbols, including the Ustasha slogan “For Homeland Ready”.

“Anyone who respects the values ​​of free, antifascist and democratic Europe will vote for this law. The refusal of the institutions to clearly and decisively condemn the propagation of the Ustasha regime has led to the normalization of fascism in the public space. We talk about the slogan under which thousands of people were killed in Ustasha camps. We forget that this is not a political, but a civilizational issue. As for positioning, IDS is probably the only party in Croatia which does not need it. We are very clearly positioned – both in terms of results and in terms of values” said Miletic. Asked if Catalonia is an example now for Istria, given the results of the referendum, Miletic said: “Istria and Catalonia are not comparable; their political position is not similar. The Catalans have their own language and a different history from Istria, which is multicultural, bilingual and in which there is the coexistence of all citizens irrespective of their origin or nationality. What we want is a high degree of regional autonomy of Istria, which means that the citizens of Istria should themselves make decisions on the use of the money they have earned from their work”.

 

Knezevic: I am not guilty, process is fake (RTCG)

 

The trial in case of an attempted terror on the Election Day continued in the Podgorica High Court. Democratic Front member Milan Knezevic made his defense stating that he was not guilty of the crimes from accusation. Knezevic said that he did not know any of the defendants, except Andrija Mandic and Mihailo Cаdenovic. He assessed that the October 16 events were a fake state coup, which happened to make Montenegro easier to join NATO. At the hearing, Knezevic did not want to answer the questions of prosecutors and the court. Commenting on Knezevic’s statement, chief prosecutor Milivoje Katnic said his testimony was a literary fiction, “which can be dangerous if somebody believes in it.” The trial is due to continue on October 25th.

 

President Meta’s official visit to Kosovo; Demarcation, unfair condition for visas liberalization (ADN)

 

Albanian President Ilir Meta started a two-day official visit to Kosovo on Wednesday by invitation of his counterpart Hashim Thaci. Meta defined as unfair the use of demarcation as condition for visas liberalization with Kosovo. “The decision to use demarcation with Montenegro as condition for visas liberalization with Kosovo is unfair. European Union should clarify Kosovo’s European future while continuing the enlargement policy,” declared President Meta. He emphasized that Kosovo meets the criteria for visas liberalization. “Kosovo citizens’ isolation should come to an end on view of the fact that Kosovo meets the criteria for visas liberalization,” stated the Albanian President.

 

Basha: Appointment of Ruci as speaker, shameful act (ATA)

 

The leader of opposition, Lulzim Basha defined as deeply shameful the fact that an ex-communist like Gramoz Ruçi sits in the Speaker’s chair. During a speech in the “MPs for MPs” commemorative parliamentary session on Tuesday he called for the definitive dismissal of the ex-communists from the country’s leadership. “I feel deeply ashamed by the fact that a man who was part of that clique now preside the parliament. This is a failure of the entire political class in Albania. Ex-communists should be prevented once and forever from becoming part of country’s leadership. The use of communism symbols should also be forbidden by the law,” declared Basha.

 

Albanian government gives up, recognizes Bulgarians as a minority (ATA)

 

Albanian government recognizes Bulgarian citizens as a minority in Albania. Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, withdraws from his first position for the nonexistence of a Bulgarian minority in Albania. After historical facts and ‘pressures’ by Bulgaria, the Members of the Parliamentary Committee for Legal Issues, Public Administration and Human Rights voted pro the new law that aims to boosts the status and rights of minorities in Albania. Now Albania has officially nine known minorities, Macedonian, Greek, Wallachian, Montenegrin, Serbian, Bosnian, Roma, Egyptian and Bulgarian minorities.

 

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

 

Erdogan touts Turkey helping push ‘prosperous’ Balkans (Anadolu Agency, by Talha Ozturk, 11 October 2017)

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday stressed the potential for a Balkans region that is living in peace, not division. “Turkey wants the Balkans to be known for peaceful unification, not instability or secession, but for a prosperous future based on common interests,” Erdogan told the Turkey-Serbia Business Forum as part of his two-day official visit to Serbia on Tuesday. Erdogan said Turkey is against some seeing Balkan countries “as their own backyard”.

On Turkey and Serbia working together, he said: “We will continue our work and increase our savings and our solidarity with the win-win principle. We believe that we have a common vision for the future of our region with Serbia.” Erdogan and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, as well as close to 700 businessmen from two countries, attended the business forum organized by the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK), the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM), and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce with the support of Turkey’s Halkbank. Erdogan also said that there is a mutual will to develop bilateral relations in every area, as Turkey sees Serbia as a friendly, key country for peace and stability in the Balkans. Erdogan called his visit an expression of his wishes to develop relations between the two countries.

 

15-year success story

Erdogan stated that Turkey’s economy, which grew 7.1 percent in 2011-2015, reached a growth rate of 5.1 percent in the first half of this year, showing that Turkey has again reached a point that is in line with its targets. Pointing to the International Monetary Fund upgrading Turkey’s growth prediction to 5.1 percent for this year, Erdogan said, “In fact, our change over 15 years is a complete success story,” meaning the 15 years under Justice and Development (AK) Party rule.

“We continue to carry out our major projects and investments without internal or external turbulence. We will also lay the groundwork for the opening of a new channel parallel to the Bosphorus, such as the end of this year or beginning of 2018,” he said. Also speaking at the event, Serbia’s Vucic said that Turkish investors investing in Serbia have contributed to the country’s falling unemployment. “Our unemployment rate has dropped from 26 percent to 11.8 percent. I want to say, especially in the poor regions, thanks to the Turkish companies and thanks to the commitment and good will of President Erdogan to send Turkish companies to work in Serbia,” he said. Vucic also spoke about the possibilities and conditions that Serbia provides to investors from Turkey. “Dear Turkish investors, whoever offers you better conditions than Serbia, come to us and we will improve our conditions and you will have at least 5 percent better conditions than anywhere else,” he said. Addressing the forum, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said that Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina will have a large trade volume in the coming period. Zeybekci said they want to maintain the positive political climate between the two countries and friendly relations. “This is one of the most important ways to create a very important commercial and economic platform in which mutual interests are at the maximum level and sustainable and predictable, a very strong political future, cooperation and the future of economic interests,” he said. In this context, Zeybekci said that they are working hard with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Trade, Tourism and Telecommunication Minister Rasim Ljajic and that they will sign a free trade agreement during Erdogan’s visit. Zeybekci said that they hope to boost the expected 2017 Turkish-Serbian trade volume of $1.1 billion to $3 billion by 2020. “One of the most important factors that will take place between the two countries will be the intensive investment of Turks in Serbia, and ministers of the two countries will ensure that these investments are carried out here in a healthy way,” he said.

 

Call for Turkish investors

Ljajic also stressed the booming relations, saying political relations between the two countries have reached the level of “strategic partnership.” Touting two landmarks in ties, Ljajic said: “One of them is that Halkbank coming to Serbia, this is how stable Serbia is, and the other is the business forum today. There has never been a forum … the presidents of the two countries have never participated in such a business forum.” Ljajic also urged Turkish businessmen to invest in Serbia, saying, “You are important to the development of the Serbian economy,” he said.

 

Erdogan in the Balkans: A neo-Ottoman quest? (Al Jazeera, by Dimitar Bechev, 11 October 2017)

 

The return of historic empires has long been a favourite theme in Western pundits’ writings on the Balkans. The crisis-ridden EU is losing ground, we are told, and Russia and Turkey are filling in the gap. “Neo-Ottomanism” is on everyone’s lips while Strategic Depth, Ahmet Davutoglu’s treatise making a case for a proactive foreign policy that draws inspiration from Turkey’s imperial heritage, has been translated into virtually all Balkan languages. There is no shortage of detractors, raving about Ankara’s geopolitical aspirations and resurgent ties to local Muslim communities. Even US diplomats have expressed concern about Turkey’s “ambitions” in the Balkans. But in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Serbia, it is difficult to find neo-Ottoman “ambitions”. Serbia is far from a historic ally, to put it mildly, and is hardly suffering from nostalgia for the Ottoman sultans (the popularity of Magnificent Century, a Turkish TV series on Suleiman the Magnificent, notwithstanding). The visit has a much more pragmatic purpose. Twelve new agreements were signed with the Serbian government, including an update to the free-trade deal (pdf) the two countries concluded back in 2009. Together with President Aleksandar Vucic, Erdogan pledged to push the annual trade turnover between the two countries from $800 million to $1bn. By virtue of its size, Serbia is Turkey’s most important market in ex-Yugoslavia, well ahead of kin countries, such as Bosnia or Kosovo. This is not to negate the role played by Islam and the Ottoman past. Erdogan’s trip to the Muslim-majority area of Sandzak on October 11 is asserting his role as leader of a community transcending the Turkish republic’s borders. Novi Pazar, the capital of the Sandzak region split between Serbia and Montenegro, was covered in billboards with the Turkish president’s face and “hosgeldiniz” (“welcome” in Turkish) in big letters. “Tito came to visit us only once. This is Erdogan’s second time,” said a local resident interviewed by Al Jazeera Balkans. “There is no family in Novi Pazar without a relative living in Turkey.” But Erdogan’s main concern in visiting Sandzak is his war against exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally turned rival who stands accused of organising the July 2016 coup attempt. The Gulenist network, now considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, operates a number of schools and humanitarian outfits across former Yugoslavia, including in Novi Pazar. The network used to be the vanguard of Turkish soft power abroad, but now, the Turkish government seeks to dismantle it, whether in Bosnia, in Georgia or in Central Asia. Erdogan’s message in Novi Pazar is clear: Sandzak is my turf, not Gulen’s. It is remarkable that Erdogan has found a partner in Aleksandar Vucic. Serbia’s president cut his teeth in the ultranationalist Radical Party in the 1990s and served as Slobodan Milosevic’s minister of information. But now he is the voice of pragmatism: “This is not 1389. Serbia and Turkey are friendly countries,” he said, referring to the year of the Battle of Kosovo between Serbian forces and the invading Ottoman army. Vucic is now a partisan of EU integration, nurtures ties with both NATO and Russia, brings in investment from the Gulf, and has even hosted the annual summit of China and Eastern European nations (the so-called 16+1 initiative). Turkey is yet another feather in Vucic’s cap; his foreign policy versatility evokes the era of Josip Broz Tito. The cost of engaging Turkey is minimal. Nationalists in Serbia cheer at Erdogan’s disputes with the US and EU and the blooming friendship with Putin. Those who point at the unsettling parallels between Vucic’s strongman tactics and Erdogan’s authoritarian ways are simply ignored. Turkey is seen as a partner rather than a threat because its leverage seems to be overhyped. Back in 2009-10, Foreign Minister Davutoglu harboured ambitions to become the western Balkans’ key mediator, especially in Bosnia. The three-way initiative he championed along with his peers from Belgrade and Sarajevo is still alive but its impact is symbolic. Turkey is now mostly focused on Syria and the Middle East, the source of its most pressing challenges. The Balkans are at best an afterthought, though affiliates of AKP, Erdogan’s party, ran in the elections in Macedonia and Bulgaria. Davutoglu, who had a soft spot for the region, befriended former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and spent summer vacations in Kosovo, is now in retirement and there is no one else eager to work on relations with Balkan nations. While Erdogan’s visit brings the Balkans briefly into the spotlight it is unlikely to bolster Turkish interest in the long term.

Stronger ties with Serbia are, beyond doubt, a bonus for Turkey, at a time when the once fashionable doctrine of “zero-problems with neighbours” has long been forgotten. But they fall short of being a game changer for either Ankara or the western Balkans.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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