From myth to reality: How to understand Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans

In October 2017, the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made an official visit to Serbia. It was not the first time a Turkish leader had gone to the country. But it was the first occasion on which Serbs had received a Turk with such warmth.

Erdoğan toured Belgrade with Serbian leader Aleksandar Vučić, visiting one of the capital’s burgeoning Turkish-run establishments – a cafe chain called Simit Sarayı. In the historic Kalemagdan, crowds cheered and snapped photos as the Turkish president explored the old Ottoman fortress.

At an official dinner, Erdoğan and Vučić enjoyed the banquet with their wives, as the Serbian foreign minister, Ivica Dačić – a Serbian nationalist, no less – serenaded the Turkish leader with “Osman Aga”, a traditional Turkish folk tune that the minister sang in Turkish.

Yet Turkey and Serbia had been on opposing sides throughout the cold war and supported different sides in the Bosnian war. For the Turkish public, the term “Serbian butcher” was in daily use throughout the 1990s, in reference to atrocities committed by Serbian forces in Bosnia. Meanwhile, Serbs have built much of their modern national identity on the denunciation of centuries of Ottoman rule. To Serbian nationalists such as Vučić and Dačić, the 1389 battle of Kosovo, in which Ottoman forces defeated the Serbs, is the pivotal moment in Serbia’s national ethos. It is not just Serbian nationalism but also the symbol on the flag of modern Turkey, the crescent and star, that is said to have emerged from the blood-soaked battlefields of Kosovo – according to a legend cited in history textbooks in Turkish schools.

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Asli Aydintasbas of the ECFR

Asli Aydintasbas is Senior Policy Fellow at ECFR, where she primarily works on Turkish foreign policy and external ramifications of its domestic politics.