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BALKANS: The Turks Return

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Aug 11 2010 (IPS) - It’s not often that the leading Belgrade daily Politika devotes two of its four foreign pages to the praise of one nation, but it did so for the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month.

Turkey was complimented as “one of the most important” partners of Serbia and the Balkans region. The paper detailed accounts of Turkish economic success and investments in the area, such as a billion euros (1.29 billion dollars) in Albania, or hundreds of millions in neighbouring Bosnia- Herzegovina.

Turkey’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was praised, and its candidacy for European Union (EU) membership supported — a common goal with Serbia in this decade.

The visit brought the opening of the first Turkish cultural centre Ataturk in the southern Serbian city Novi Pazar by Serbian President Boris Tadic and Erdogan.

The city is in Sandzak region, with a predominantly Bosniak Muslim population. After 500 years of Turkish, or Ottoman rule in the Balkans, which ended at the end of the 19th century, the region was divided between Bosnia and Serbia.

But as official media and papers such as Politika praised cooperation with Turkey, Serb nationalists warned in their media outlets of the danger of the “new arrival of Turkey into the Balkans,” and spoke of the “dark Ottoman rule here that sidetracked us (Christian Serbs) from Europe.”

Many analysts see the arrival of Turkey as logical. “Turkey is involved in a pragmatic political project that it must have an active role in the international scene,” Prof. Darko Tanaskovic from Belgrade University told IPS. Tanaskovic is an expert on Islam in the region, and former Serbian ambassador to Turkey.

Tanaskovic said modern Turkey is a “skilfully disguised sternly Islamic nation” that wants influence in large areas of the former empire from the Balkans to Asia, leaving behind the secular ideology of Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern nation who took over after the dismantling of the Ottoman empire after World War I.

In neighbouring Bosnia and its capital Sarajevo, Turkey has provided religious and financial support to Bosniaks, the biggest victims of the war with Serbs in 1992-95. Turkey is not the only one. Saudi Arabia built the vast King Fahd’s Mosque and adjoining cultural centre in the Sarajevo suburb Alipasino Polje.

A number of Islamic charities from Indonesia and Malaysia, besides Saudi Arabia, have provided financial support to families whose breadwinners died in the war, demanding strict adherence to religion, including introduction of veils.

“We get 400 euros (508 dollars) a month to remain devout Muslims,” said Fuada (54) a Sarajevo teacher who lost her husband and son in the war. “It’s enough for me and my daughter.” But they cannot find work.

Fuada spoke to the IPS insisting on anonymity, afraid she might lose the income if her full name is revealed. Fuada’s daughter Enisa graduated from a Saudi financed Islamic high school for female assistants in practising religious customs in families.

“The Turks are more welcome, as they do bring jobs and do not insist strictly on religious matters,” Zijad Jusufovic (45) who works as a tourist guide told IPS recently in Sarajevo. “They’ve opened some 300 firms in the past couple of years here and that is what people yearn for — work and prosperity,” he added.

Turkey has invested in education in Bosnia as well. There are two Turkish- founded universities in Sarajevo, the International University of Sarajevo (IUS), set up by a group of Turkish businessmen and public figures and their Bosnian counterparts, and the International Burch University (IBU). The IBU’s founder is the Istanbul-based Foundation of Journalists and Writers, established among others by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Followers of Gulen, who has pursued a view that Muslims should not reject modernity but embrace business and the professions, have created a network of private schools and universities across Turkey, the central Asia and the Balkans.

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