“Turkish-Serbian relations will not change with the change of leadership in Belgrade,” stated Dušan Spasojevic, Serbian ambassador to Turkey, noting that relations with Turkey have taken on a mainstream character in Belgrade’s foreign policy.
Serbia elected a new president in May, and a new government is about to be formed. In contrast to the former president and government, the present political figures holding power in Serbia have nationalistic tendencies, which, one would imagine, might potentially harm bilateral relations between Turkey and Serbia, given that Turkey recognized Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. “Turkey and Serbia will continue to cooperate,” Spasojevic told Today’s Zaman in an exclusive interview, noting that the political leadership in both countries has intelligently managed to sideline the issue of Kosovo and strengthen bilateral relations.
The facts amply confirm the ambassador’s words. The Turkish and Serbian presidents met on the sidelines of the recently held summit of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) in İstanbul, co-chairing the summit. Plus, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic came together with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June. So, the newly elected Serbian president met both the prime minister and president of Turkey in the first month of his term, strengthening the friendship between Serbia and Turkey. As the ambassador puts it, “It’s a very good sign.”
One of best periods in relations
Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Serbia have been quite good in recent years. “This is one of our best periods,” Spasojevic said, adding that the present level of relations should be kept and even strengthened by promoting bilateral trade in the following years. The ambassador believes Turkey’s constructive role in the Balkans is absolutely legitimate. “Especially in the last 10 years, with its economy and its constructive policies, Turkey is a country that deserves a role in the Balkans,” he commented, adding that Turkey is a key country for peace in this part of the world.
Spasojevic, who has been in Turkey for a year-and-a-half, sees Turkey as a vital player in the region and believes the economy should be the basis for strengthening political cooperation, and this is also true for cooperation within the BSEC. “We need to develop stronger economic cooperation between BSEC member states,” he said, adding that the BSEC, an organization that Serbia takes seriously, is an important forum for the Black Sea region. “We need fewer borders, fewer customs and more economic cooperation,” the ambassador commented, adding that everyone at the BSEC summit on June 26 was aware of this fact.
In an effort to promote trade, Turkey and Serbia signed a free trade agreement in 2009 and abolished visas a year later. However, bilateral trade remained at a modest $560 million in 2011, although the figure represents a 30 percent increase over the previous year. “This is a very small amount considering the potential Serbia and Turkey have,” the ambassador noted.
Spasojevic is hopeful for the future, but emphasized that, with regard to trade, Turkey and Serbia should also focus on big investments, adding that Turkish businesspeople feel at home in Serbia, as the mentalities of the two peoples are similar. For the present, Turkey’s investments in Serbia amount to around $50 million. In particular, the textile, automotive and food industries offer good prospects for investments in Serbia, which has a free trade agreement with Russia.
Efforts to promote bilateral trade are in full swing. Businesspeople from the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) were in Serbia in March for the Serbia-Turkey business forum and for another concerning textiles in May. “These businesspeople achieve a lot in the way of boosting Turkey’s image in Belgrade. This is a big chance for us,” the ambassador commented.
Cooperation in food likely
The food industry represents an important area in which to develop strong cooperation. Last year the two countries signed agreements on agriculture. Joint ventures in fields such as livestock and water management are on the agenda. Noting that Turkey’s and Serbia’s agriculture sectors are compatible and not in competition, the ambassador stated, “I would bet cooperation on agriculture can be successful.”
Serbia has recently received candidate status from the European Union and expects to open up negotiations at the soonest possible opportunity. Spasojevic is of the opinion that the EU is the best answer to many problems in the region. “Once you are in the EU, many other questions are relatively easier to resolve, and everything becomes relative in a sense,” he said, seeming to be unconcerned about the economic crisis in EU countries. He strongly believes the EU will survive and manage to find a solution to the crisis. In fact, the ambassador believes the EU will come out stronger than it was before the crisis. “This is not the first economic crisis Europe has gone through,” he noted.
As regards the crisis in Syria, Serbia fully supports the efforts of the United Nations and the Arab League. Serbia is one of those countries that knows from experience what a civil war is, as the former Yugoslavia went through a terrible period of civil war in the 1990s. “We know what instability, civil war and the killing of innocent people just because they are of a different ethnicity or have a different faith means,” the ambassador stated, adding that it’s most important to find a way of carrying out a peaceful transition in Syria through dialogue. The ambassador finds the situation in Syria dangerous because, as he noted, “Just like corruption, violence has a tendency to get bigger and bigger.” He therefore appreciates Turkey’s cool-headed stance regarding Syria after a Turkish jet was shot down in the region. “Rationality is winning at a very emotional time, and this is leadership,” Spasojevic commented.
Politicians are on good terms and economic relations are picking up, but there is one thing that needs real boosting: cultural exchanges between the two countries; and “culture will be the icing on the cake,” the ambassador said.
Sister city project on the agenda
To weave closer ties both economically and culturally, Serbia and Turkey are also planning to form sister city ties. The project has not materialized yet, but Eskişehir and Krusevac, and Diyarbakır and Sabac may become sister-cities. Ambassador Spasojevic has taken the matter up with both the mayors and governors of Eskişehir and Diyarbakır, who are also positive about the project.
But the two countries need to make greater efforts on the cultural front for the two peoples to get to know each other better. Actually, Serbia is already acquainted with a number of Turkish soap operas, and the number of people who take an interest in learning Turkish is not negligible, the ambassador pointed out. However, the number of authors on both sides whose books have been translated into the other language is no more than a few. That’s why the ambassador says,” We need to know each other’s genuine cultural works in the fields of music, film and theater.”
As to efforts to promote bilateral trade, the ambassador feels the two countries must continue with political dialogue at the highest level. And secondly, the present agreements concluded by the two sides should be implemented. Last but not least, medium-size and big investors on both sides should be encouraged to invest in the other country.
Grew up quicker than average
Dusan Spasojevic, 38, is the youngest ambassador in Ankara. He is not a diplomat by profession, and in fact, Ankara is his first posting as an ambassador. Before being posted in Ankara, he served as deputy minister of defense and as foreign policy advisor to the president. He is a lawyer by profession and spent almost two years in the London School of Economics, learning and teaching international relations. Talking about the important posts he occupied at a young age, he stated, “We had hard times in Serbia and grew up quicker than people did in other parts of the world,” referring to the civil war years the former Yugoslavia went through in the 1990s.
He has been to quite a few cities in Turkey, including Gaziantep, Kayseri, Konya, Trabzon, Urfa, Denizli and Antalya. This fall he will be visiting cities in the Black Sea region. He finds the hospitality of Turkish people amazing. Noting that it’s very easy to get accustomed to, he admitted, “If I should get posted somewhere else, I’ll probably then have problems as I’ll miss such warm hospitality.” However, he has had difficulty getting used to the way people drive in Ankara. “People in Ankara drive like people in Naples, Italy. It’s like motor-racing! But you get used to it,” he said, smiling.
No change in Kosovo policy
The recent change of leadership in Belgrade is expected to bring about no change in Serbia’s Kosovo policy. “As far as Serbia is concerned, Kosovo is part of Serbia. We will never recognize the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo,” The ambassador told Today’s Zaman in an exclusive interview. But he also stressed the need to continue dialogue, which the ambassador believes is “the only way to resolve issues in the region.”
200,000 Serbs visit Turkey a year
Turkey is the second most popular destination for Serbian tourists -- the first being Greece, which has the advantage of being much closer. Around 200,000 Serbs spend their vacation in Turkey each year. Tourism is sure to serve to break prejudices, which have their origin in history, between the two peoples. “Serbs who come to Turkey are amazed by the hospitality and the professionalism. And they are breaking the prejudices when they go back,” said the ambassador, adding, “This is the best advertisement for Turkey.”
Actually, in this era of communication, prejudices seem to vaporize quickly. A Serbian businessman, who worked as a CEO in Turkey for a foreign company and who left Turkey a couple of weeks ago, didn’t have a single bad experience here, the ambassador noted. The same is true for Turkish business people in Serbia, who feel comfortable there. Having lived in the same region for centuries -- though as rivals -- the two peoples also have a fairly good number of similarities. There are quite a few words of Turkish origin in Serbian, such as yastık (pillow), çarşaf (blanket), börek (a kind of pastry), çizme (top boot), and cezve (coffee pot). And in Serbia, people order Turkish coffee as “Turca coffee.”