Serbia, like most Orthodox Christian states of southern Europe, has a long history of animosity towards Turkey. It was Ottoman Turkey which initially crushed the sovereignty of Orthodox Europe, leading to a centuries long occupation that only started to end in 1804, when Serbia declared its independence, an independence that was ultimately fully achieved in 1878, after Serbia’s traditional ally and Turkey’s traditional foe, Russia, fought and won a war with the Ottoman Empire.
Because of this long and acrimonious history, many have found it surprising that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been enjoying a productive visit to Belgrade. Among other economic cooperation proposals discussed was a Turkish proposal to extend the so-called Turk Stream Pipeline to Serbia.
Can Turks and Serbs ever be friends?
While conventional wisdom would answer this question with a firm “no”, geo-political real ties across the globe are challenging long held conceptions of which states are traditional allies and enemies. First there was Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia which is quickly blossoming into a very real economic partnership. This was followed by a perhaps even more meaningful warming of relations between Turkey and Iran.
In a further challenge to the convention wisdom on traditional geo-political friends and foes, Saudi Arabia’s King has just visited Moscow for a meeting that could be the first small step in a long term Saudi pivot to Eurasia.
Old adversaries versus current threats
And thus one must turn not to Serbia’s old enemy of Turkey, but to the state which most directly threatens the sovereignty and security of Serbia: Albania.
Ethnic Albanians who are well known to have a direct line to the regime in Tirana, are currently occupying the Serbian Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija. In 2008, when Turkey joined its NATO colleagues in recognising the Albanian/NATO occupation of Kosovo and Metohija as a “state”, the world was very different for Turkey. At that time, Ankara wanted to join the EU and the idea of Turkey as a partner with Russia, Iran and others in Eurasia was considered inconsequential. Even 2013, when Erdogan made an embarrassingly anti-Serb speech in Kosovo and Metohija, seems like the distant past in terms of Turkey’s geo-political position then versus its positions now.
Times have changed in this respect and while Turkey can scarcely undo the recent, let alone centuries old past, present conditions could mandate a pivot in policy.
Unlike in Bosnia where Erdogan is seen as the leader of a kind of pseudo-political cult of personality, the other majority Sunni Muslim country of the Balkans, Albania, is currently experiencing an ebb in relations with Ankara.
Gulenists in Albania versus Erdogan
Albania is known to shelter members of the hated Fethullah Gulen terrorist organisation. Erdogan recently slammed Albania for sheltering members of the group, although his plea fell on notably deaf ears in Tirana. Erdogan friendly media outlets in Turkey were quick to latch onto Albania’s apparently perfidious behaviour.
Furthermore, in addition to housing Gulenists, Albania is also the de-facto global base for the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a terrorist group widely proscribed by Turkey’s partners in Tehran.
Furthermore, while Serbia remains stable and safe from terrorism, Albania is being destabilised by a heavy presence of ISIS fighters, drug lords and arms dealers, including those who have sold weapons to Kurdish groups in the Middle East in the past.
At present, Turkey’s economic foot firmly is in the door of Russia and China. Russia for its part is happy to see Turkey facilitate the safe movement of Russian gas to the Balkans and likewise, China has its eye on the Balkans as an important transport corridor of the One Belt–One Road initiative.
Because of this, the great powers of the wider so-called global east need a safe space in the western Balkans to do commerce. That place is increasingly Serbia.
Additionally, with Turkey now coming out fully in favour of the territorial unity of Syria and Iraq due to the fear of radial Kurdish movements, Turkey’s sympathies may naturally evolve, making Ankara side with a state like Serbia, whose territorial unity has been threatened by a NATO alliance that Turkey is fast becoming a stranger in.
Turkey has already come out in opposition to the Greater Albania project and this was before Turkey’s row with Israel whose own Yinon Plan (aka Greater Israel Project) formally linked up with Kurds in Iraq, so far as Ankara is concerned.
Serbia’s objective attraction to Eurasia and beyond
As a non-EU member, Serbia is well placed to skirt the sanctions of Brussels and as a non-NATO country that is far more stable and secure than Albania, it makes increasingly good economic sense to invest in Serbia. Furthermore, unlike Greece, Serbia does not have any territorial disputes with Turkey, nor does the issue of Cyprus factor into matters with Serbia the way they inevitably would with Greece. Even if Serbia does eventually join the EU, much of this attraction remains. If as some have suggested, Serbia instead opts for a partnership with the EU as well as one with the Eurasian Economic Union, things would become even more enticing for the powers of Eurasian, including Turkey.
While some in Ankara might still want to play up Albania’s Sunni heritage as a common denominator in relations, the fact is that Albania’s corrupt political culture means that it has and will almost certainly continue to shelter any terrorist group which is willing to either pay up or make an ‘offer’ that Tirana cannot or is not willing to refuse. In this sense, contemporary Albania is something like post-1996 Afghanistan in respect of al-Qaeda, only with money alone, as opposed to money plus ideology being a guiding factor in various decision making processes. This is not to say that the political culture of Albania is similar to 1990s Afghanistan, but its relationship to international terrorism is becoming eerily similar.
The Gulenist factor however, may be a decisive point in a Turkey pivot to Serbia. In this sense, just as Russia lured Turkey with the genuine promise of economic enrichment, at the same time that the US and EU pushed Turkey away, so too could Serbia’s stability and business like attitude stand out in the Balkans, all the while Serbia’s primary adversary pushes Turkey away.
It is clear that Turkey is not willing to placate any power with ties to Gulen’s terrorist organisation and this increasingly includes the United States. If Turkey will not stand for Gulenism among American state bodies, there is little realistic prospect that Albania will stand a chance in Turkey’s overall calculations on the matter.
While it is early days yet and while Turkey is a particular case study which proves that a zero sum mentality to geo-politics can never accurately apply, Serbia may be on the verge of developing an unlikely partnership with Anakara, one almost as unlikely as that which has developed between Ankara and Moscow as well as Ankara and Tehran.