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BELGRADE, Jul 24 2012 (IPS) - In the decade following the break-up of Yugoslavia, it was rare for a statement made by a foreign politician to stir heated debate in the Eastern European bloc.
Since 2001, the independent nations of former Yugoslavia have been focused on rebuilding their economies from the rubble of simultaneous and protracted conflicts throughout the region and geopolitics have largely been confined to the slow process of reconciliation among neighbouring states.
But the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proclamation last week that Bosnia-Herzegovina is now in the “care” of his country generated much public controversy in the Balkan states of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina is entrusted to us,” Erdogan told a meeting of the provincial heads of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara last week.
He recalled a statement made by the former Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first president, when Erdogan visited him on his deathbed in 2003. “He (Izetbegovic) whispered in my ear these phrases: ‘Bosnia (and Herzegovina) is entrusted to you (Turkey). These places are what remain of the Ottoman Empire’,” he said.
Izetbegovic, who led Bosnia into the war of independence in 1992 and subsequently became the country’s first president, died of a heart disease in 2003.
The thought of being passed off as a ‘trust’ to any country is enough to spark intense opposition but the statement is made worse by the fact that Bosnia is home to a highly diverse population comprising various ethno-religious communities including Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Bosnian Croats and Orthodox Serbs as well.
The latter two groups make up more than half of Bosnia’s population of four million. For them, the 500 years of Turkish-Ottoman rule that ended only with the collapse of the empire at the end of World War I are remembered almost exclusively as a period of severe oppression.
Bosnian Serb politicians were quick to voice their anger over the statement.
“Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a land to be inherited,” Igor Radojicic, a spokesman for the Bosnian Serb Parliament stressed, while Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic told local media he doubted that “Izetbegovic could be so powerful as to believe he has a country to give (away) as a trust.”
The controversy quickly went viral online, with websites in the region becoming the battlegrounds for a war of words between various ethnic groups.
“People who are not of Islamic faith tend to be surprised when they see many women in Sarajevo dressed in traditional Islamic ways, with scarves or even in abayas, as Bosnia was a secular country before the wars of the ‘90s,” Zijad Jusufovic (47), a tour guide in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, told IPS.
“But there are also others signs that are not yet visible (to a majority of the population) – for instance unemployed men get financial support if they become regular mosque goers, war widows get financial support as well – up to 600 dollars – if they and their children become devout Muslims.
“That began in the 90s, as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia (began) to support Muslims here,” he added.
Pragmatic foreign policy
Belgrade historian Slavenko Terzic told the leading Serbian daily ‘Politika’ that Erdogan’s proclamation was “a dangerous statement for the Balkans”.
His colleague, Cedomir Antic, described the move as “an unprecedented provocation” that should be “officially renounced by Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia”.
But for analysts and experts, the statement by the Turkish Prime Minister came as no surprise.
“The statement represents a political reality: that (Turkey) considers the Balkans a priority in its ambitious foreign policy,” Darko Tanaskovic, an expert in oriental studies at the University of Belgrade, told IPS.
For Voja Lalic, a veteran journalist who dedicated his career to Turkey, Erdogan’s statement was “neither accidental, nor unexpected”.
“The (AKP) government is trying to impose itself as a regional power in areas of the former Ottoman Empire, not only in the Balkans, but in the Middle East and former Soviet republics of Islamic background as well,” Lalic told IPS.
“Perhaps the statement about ‘legacy’ was a little counterproductive for Turkey’s long-term interests,” Tanaskovic told IPS, especially since it raised fears in Bosnia about Ankara’s expansionist mindset.
He added, however, that Turkey’s foreign policy is distinguished by a high degree of pragmatism, referred to by historians and analysts as ‘Neo-Osmanism’. Tanaskovic described this ideology as a mix of Islamism, Turkish nationalism and Osman imperialism, a foreign policy strategy that is “nostalgic for imperial times”, he told IPS.
“It is (this) pragmatism that dominates Turkey’s foreign policy,” Lalic says. “Turks are excellent traders and they use that skill always and everywhere,” he added.
Sarajevo columnist Borivoje Simic recently wrote, “Private capital, interested in profit only, which does not differ between nations, colours or race, has yet to enter Bosnia. So far, this country has not proven to be a stable, comfortable place for investment, despite the ‘political love’ that has been expressed by many, including Turkey.”
But a brief look at Turkey’s economic presence in the Balkans shows that this is now changing. According to Turkey’s economic ministry, trade between Turkey and the countries in the Balkans grew from 2.9 billion dollars in 2000 to 18.4 billion dollars in 2011.
At the same time, direct investment into these nations grew from 30 million dollars in 2002 to 189 million in 2011.
“Out of the 1.8 million dollars invested abroad in 2011, seven percent went to the Balkans,” according to Turkish offocials. This money was poured into diverse industries such as communications, banking, construction, mining and retail sectors.
Culturally, too, Turkey’s presence in the Balkan’s is increasing rapidly.
“Turkish soap-operas have (become more popular than) South American shows,” Tanaskovic told IPS.
“It is this strategy (so-called ‘soft power’) that creates a positive image about Turkey,” he said in reference to the dozens of Turkish TV series that currently rule the Balkans’ screens.
Millions were glued to their TV screens from February until June this year, when the first 55 episodes of a saga on Suleiman the Magnificent aired in the region. Stories of the 16th century ruler and his court immediately captured the hearts of thousands of citizens.
Such was the popularity of these shows that various sociologists began to study the phenomenon.
“The Turkish oriental element presents a shared and familiar atmosphere for millions, harkening back to a collective cultural identity, and even elements of a common language, that have survived for centuries,” according to Lalic.
Turkey has also opened two universities in Bosnia – the International University of Sarajevo (IUS) and the International Burch University (IBU), the latter established by private individuals that include Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen.
“The growing popularity of the Turkish seaside is also an indicator” of closer ties, Lalic added.
The Turkish seaside ranks third among Serbs, whose favourite holiday destinations have hitherto been Montenegro or Greece. Now the Turkish Mediterranean coast is attracting thousands: 140,000 Serbs flew there in the first half of the year, with more tourists expected in the coming months.
“It is such fun to be in Turkey,” said Ivana Djuraskovic (40), who plans to re-visit the Turkish resort of Bodrum this year.
“When I hear ‘Turkish’ words, which are Serbian as well, such as sanduk (box), kapija (gate), hajde (come on), taman (enough), carsav (linen), secer (sugar), kackavalj (cheese) or kralj (king), I feel at home,” she added.
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