Erdogan in the Balkans: A neo-Ottoman quest?

What is behind Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Serbia?

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic welcomes his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to their meeting in Belgrade on October 10 [AFP/Andrej Isakovic]

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.


Nationalists in Serbia cheer at Erdogan's fights with the US and EU and the blooming friendship with Putin.


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.