Serbia-Turkey relations: ready for a new era?
Bilateral relations between the Republic of Serbia and the Turkish Republic appear to be enjoying renewed interest from both parties. And this is not simply due to the worst-ever floods that recently struck Serbia (as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina and to a lesser extent, Croatia), which led to an impressive show of public solidarity from Turkey, which donated hard cash and provided other help and goods.

This solidarity is not limited to individual citizens wishing to "do good," but is fully in line with official government policies in this field. However, for the purpose of writing this contribution, please allow me to depart from the grave effects of a natural disaster that continues to make headlines as more and long-term help is needed for the flood victims, to discuss the wider bilateral picture instead.

And in this context please bear with me, too, that whilst of course not neglecting its relevance, I will try to focus on bilateral relations without aiming to solve what many would call "the triangle dilemma," that is at all times analyzing Belgrade-Ankara relations by automatically bringing Kosovo into the equation. I reserve this subject for a longer, future article.

The reason for this narrowed approach is that elsewhere, relations are blossoming step-by-step; perhaps it was a sound decision to let them blossom somewhat removed from the spotlight of breaking news.

Think trade. Figures amount to roughly $700 million in bilateral trade exchange. But much more could be done, particularly from the side of Turkish businesses, as only $100 million makes its way to Serbian ventures.

Then there is the tourism sector, which is always a good indicator of the state of affairs in analyzing the two countries' relations. At the moment, only 100,000 Serbian visitors per year travel to Turkey for touristic purposes. This figure, similar to increased Turkish investments in Serbia, would benefit from upward modifications.

But there is much more to the relationship than trade and tourism. Cooperation in the fields of education and culture should be on the agenda. But perhaps most of all, both nations' civil societies must become involved via an increase in school, university and other exchange programs and bilateral visits to learn from each other and ultimately understand each other better.

Including history about civil society dialogue projects would not be a mistake. There are diverging interpretations of how relations between both nations evolved after Serbia gained independence in the 19th century. Seen from an Ottoman-era perspective, peace and stability preceded independence; seen from a Serbian dimension, some would argue that only after independence did the state begin to fully prosper.

And similar to other cross-border civil societies, paving the way for better mutual understanding on a political level, which leads to long-term friendship between nations -- as was the case between France and West Germany, although of course a totally different scenario; the involvement of civil society is what I want to stress in overcoming physical and mental barriers -- by discussing history in an open, friendly environment while always focusing on the present and the future is definitely a good idea.

And the future could look bright for Serbian-Turkish relations. Belgrade supports Ankara's European Union bid. Then again, Serbia is considering its very own eventual EU integration and would benefit from Turkey's help in this regard.

Increased numbers of high-level visits of both countries' leaders are one step. Convincing both countries' business communities that engaging in more bilateral trade would make sense for profit margins is the next. Involving civil society in the process, and not only as tourists, is the third and an absolutely vital step to achieve lasting success. Not sidelining the historical dimension yet focusing on the present and the future is important, too.

Turkish-Serbian relations may not always be the most important item on the agenda of either Ankara's or Belgrade's day-to-day foreign policy making, but it would most definitely benefit from a renewed push. Why wait?

KLAUS JURGENS (Cihan/Today's Zaman) CİHAN
Last Modified: 2014-05-31 09:00:02
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