Stirring the Bosnian Pot

In October last year, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu famously "rode into" Sarajevo and delivered a lecture about the "golden age" of Ottoman rule to an adulating audience. On that occasion, he declared:

"Now is the time for reunification. Then we will rediscover the spirit of the Balkans. We need to create a new feeling of unity in the region. We need to strengthen regional ownership, a common regional conscience… It all depends on which part of history you look to. From the 15th to the 20th century, the history of the Balkans was a history of success. We can have this success again."

Over the past six months, the Turkish government has wasted no time translating Davutoglu’s announced policy into practice. The FM has organized monthly meetings with his colleagues from Bosnia and Serbia. Last weekend, Turkish president Gul, Serbian president Tadic and acting Bosnian president Silajdzic signed a joint declaration on regional policy. Ankara is also claiming credit for Serbia’s parliamentary declaration on Srebrenica and NATO’s recent overtures to Bosnia.

With the EU increasingly busy salvaging its crumbling financial foundations, and the US preoccupied with adventures elsewhere, it appears that Turkey has emerged as the new dominant power in the Balkans.

The Istanbul Summit

One of the first things Davutoglu did following his Sarajevo visit last October was to open a channel to Belgrade. Despite the fact that Turkey had recognized the "independent state of Kosovo," an occupied Serbian province, Belgrade greeted him cordially. Starting in October, Davutoglu has met repeatedly with Serbia’s Vuk Jeremic and Bosnia’s Sven Alkalaj. The end result of this diplomatic merry-go-round was the April 24 presidential summit in Istanbul.

To hear the Turkish media describe it, the Istanbul meeting was this historical peace conference. "While Bosnia has sent an ambassador to Belgrade, Serbia’s parliament has apologized to Bosnia for the Srebrenica massacre," writes the newspaper Zaman. Except that Sarajevo used to have an ambassador in Belgrade for years, until the current chairman of the collective Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, tried to appoint one of his followers to the post only to have him rejected by Belgrade — which is every country’s right — on account of his murky wartime past. In fact, it is Silajdzic who has persistently generated conflict with Serbia over the past several years. The most recent example is the incident at the Mostar Business Fair, when he aimed a vicious diatribe at the guest of honor, Serbian president Tadic.

Just ten days later, Silajdzic and Tadic were in Istanbul, pledging that "regional policy should be based on ensuring security, the permanent political dialogue and the preservation of multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious characteristics of the region" and basking in the praise of their "determination to overcome historical differences and build a common future based on tolerance and understanding."

Bosnian Serb officials, however, have strongly objected to the Istanbul summit, arguing that Silajdzic was acting on his own and did not have the legal mandate to make any pledges.

Credit Where It’s Due?

One should not underestimate Ankara’s determination to become a patron of the Bosnian Muslims. Visiting the Bosnian capital earlier this month, Erdogan declared, "Turkey will never abandon Bosnia and Herzegovina and considers it a moral and historic responsibility to stand by this Balkan nation." (emphasis added) This "moral and historical" obligation directly applies to that part of the Bosnian population that sees Turkey as its mother country. Davutoglu said as much last October.

Turkish activism goes beyond "mediating" with Serbia. Davutoglu has also been courting support from Croatia, meeting with the Croatian FM, Gordan Jandrokovic, in January and again this week. Turkish Foreign Ministry claimed to have "set the stage" for Serbia’s Srebrenica declaration. And when NATO finally extended an invitation to Bosnia into its Membership Action Plan (MAP), at the Talinn summit last week, the newspaper Hurriyet claimed that it was due to Davutoglu’s confrontation with the reluctant Americans and Europeans back in December:

Recalling the bitter times the Balkan country had endured, which included the killings of nearly 250,000 Bosnians, Davutoglu told the meeting participants: “It is your moral responsibility to approve this. If Bosnia is in this shape today, it is because you turned your back on what happened to this country in the 1990s. Now you should do the right thing.”

If this is true, then NATO was snared in a trap of its own making. Having used hysterical propaganda about "250,000 dead Bosnians" and "genocide" to mobilize the public for intervention in the 1990s, it can hardly say "Oh, well, we made it all up," now — even though the quarter-million casualty count was debunked years ago.

How accurate is this perception, nurtured by Davutoglu and the Turkish media, that a lot of what has been happening in the Balkans lately is Turkey’s doing? Other sources seem to corroborate Hurriyet‘s story about the MAP. The notion that it was his tireless mediation that brought Belgrade around is just plain silly, though. Serbian president Tadic isn’t exactly know for his spine, and it wasn’t hard to flatter him into doing just about anything, including making Haris Silajdzic look good in an election year.

The Bubbling Cauldron

General elections in Bosnia are scheduled for October, and tensions are running high. Nearly fifteen years after the end of its (un)civil war, the country remains a bubbling cauldron of discontent. Croats are unhappy that they have very little say in state-level policy, and their numbers are dwindling. The Bosnian Serb Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, openly says his goal is to make the Serb Republic "self-sufficient" and that he doesn’t care much what happens in Sarajevo, or in the Muslim-Croat Federation. Meanwhile, the Muslims are facing economic collapse. High taxes and corruption have driven many enterprises into the Serb Republic, leaving the bloated Federation government unable to fund itself. Worse yet, it cannot keep up the welfare payments. The IMF is offering generous loans to the country (2/3 of which are earmarked for the Federation), but demands welfare cutbacks in return. Earlier this month, though, angry war veterans rioted in Sarajevo over plans to reduce their pensions.

Stuck between political necessity and economic reality, the Muslim political establishment is playing the only card it has left: blaming the Serbs. Ethnic tensions are being ratcheted up on a daily basis. When the wartime head of the Bosnian (Muslim) Army, General Rasim Delic, passed away in mid-April, he was given a state funeral. Yet the presence of uniformed troops was not sanctioned by the Defense Ministry, and there are laws actually forbidding state funerals for convicted war criminals (Delic was convicted by the ICTY for mistreatment of prisoners). Adding insult to injury was the call by Sarajevo mayor Alija Behmen to ban the planned commemoration of the May 3, 1992 massacre of Yugoslav Army troops. Behmen called the massacre a clash between the "legal forces of the Bosnian state and the Serb aggressors" and that a commemoration would be "revisionism."

The atmosphere in Sarajevo has become so poisonous that even the staunchest sympathizers of the Bosnian Muslims, who continue to believe in the myth of multiethnic Bosnia, have begun to harbor doubts.

So, with Ankara claiming credit for so many recent events in the Balkans, it would not be unreasonable to wonder to what extent is Turkey’s assertive "neo-Ottoman" policy responsible for stirring the volatile Bosnian pot.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.