Turkish-Serbian ties to continue to improve in Nikolic era

May 27, 2012, Sunday/ 13:10:00/ MİNHAC ÇELİK

A group of Serbian journalists and political observers say relations between Turkey and Serbia will continue to improve during the term of newly elected Serbian President Timoslav Nikolic, chiefly for economic reasons.

Journalists and management from various Serbian media organizations on a visit to İstanbul last week scotched debate over whether relations would continue to sweeten after the election of nationalist Nikolic to the presidency.

Petar Jeremic, chairman of the board of executives of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS), believes mutually beneficial economic ties will continue to strengthen. “The positive mood will go on. We have a free trade agreement. It is beneficial for the Serbian economy.

We need Turkish investments. Turkish businessmen are very interested in investing in Serbia. It is the economy, not the political party, which has the power to influence Turkish-Serbian relations. Nikolic is also aware of the fact that the economy is important,” he said.

However, Nenad Radicevic, deputy foreign editor of the Politika daily, touched on doubts of the Serbian public about relations with Turkey, stating: “Analysts and a considerable part of society are suspiciously questioning the reason for such cheerful cooperation with Turkey. In addition, Serbs in Republika Srpska are not very happy about improved relations with Turkey.” Republika Srpska is one of two political entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and is predominantly populated by ethnic Serbs.

Relations cooled between Ankara and Belgrade during the 1990s due to the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, but since 2009 immense efforts have been expended to improve diplomatic, political and economic relations. In addition to many high-level bilateral diplomatic visits, the two countries have signed free trade and defense cooperation agreements. In 2009 President Abdullah Gül became the first Turkish president to visit Serbia in 23 years. Resulting from this intensification of ties Turkey has more leverage regarding Serbian-Bosnian relations and in 2011 organized the tripartite Balkan Summit, bringing the presidents of Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina together in an attempt to bolster regional cooperation. In 2011 the total trade volume between Turkey and Serbia was $570 million, an increase, according to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), of 75 percent since 2006. Turkish construction companies signed contracts worth $210 million in 2011.

Last Sunday’s election of Nikolic, a former ultranationalist ally of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic who claims to now support Serbia’s bid to join the European Union, raised doubts as to whether Serbia will return to old nationalist political discourse, which would certainly threaten the regional stability resting on a delicate balance of power. Nikolic defeated liberal Boris Tadic, who had taken the initiative in fostering Serbian diplomatic relations and was committed to EU membership.

Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS) Secretary-General Svetozar Rakovic pointed out that although Nikolic, who resigned his post as chairman of the Serbian Progressive Party after the election, is president, the government is expected to comprise a coalition formed by Tadic’s Democratic Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which doubled its percentage of the vote from national elections in 2008. “The presidency is just a ceremonial post. The reason Tadic has been so active is the government was led by his Democratic Party when he was president, but today Nikolic’s party is not expected to be in the coalition,” Rakovic said. Politika’s Radicevic added that Tadic is likely to become the prime minister, saying, “This is another reason why I believe Turkish-Serbian cooperation will continue.”

Commenting on social prejudice against Turkey within Serbian society, Ivan Cvejic, editor-in-chief of Novinska news agency, did not deny the anti-Turkish sentiment in Serbia, but added that prejudice is, hopefully, in sharp decline as a result of an increase in the number of Serbs visiting Turkey and the prevalence of Turkish TV series. Cvejic explained: “Turkey is now the second most popular tourist destination for Serbs after Russia. Serbians had a habit of visiting Montenegro, but in the past few years they have discovered Turkey. Of course the other factor changing the anti-Turkish sentiment is Turkish TV series.” Rakovic considered the issue from another perspective, highlighting different attitudes adopted by older and younger generations, saying: “Youngsters are much more aware of Turkey than the older generation. Old Serbs only think the majority of Turkish society is Muslim, but the younger generation buys Turkish products and they are watching soap operas. They think of Turkey as a democratic country.”

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