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18-07-2010
Serbia and Turkey
Exit, pursued by a Turk

Past and present intertwine in Serbia in unexpected ways

Jul 15th 2010 | belgrade and novi sad

JANUS-faced Serbia is looking to past and future. On July 11th Boris Tadic, its president, paid homage to some 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys murdered at Srebrenica when the town fell to Bosnian Serb forces 15 years ago. Meanwhile, in Novi Sad in northern Serbia, revellers from across Europe were enjoying the tenth annual Exit music festival.

Exit, the name chosen by the festival’s organisers to represent an “exit” from Serbian nationalism, has become one of the continent’s coolest summer destinations for thousands of young foreigners each year, attracted by some of the world’s top acts. For them Serbia’s wars are something they might read about in the history books they slip into their rucksacks.
Not to everyone. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander at Srebrenica, remains at large, wanted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague on charges of genocide. When he led his troops into Srebrenica in 1995 he exulted that he had liberated the town from the “Turks”, a derogatory term for Bosniaks.

Ironically, Turkey now appears to be Serbia’s new best friend. After addressing the ceremony at Srebrenica, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, visited Belgrade. A series of agreements were made between the two countries, including the abolition of visas. A free-trade deal will come into force in September. Accompanied by Mr Tadic, Mr Erdogan visited Sandzak, Serbia’s majority Bosniak south-western region, where the two men opened a Turkish cultural centre. Over the last year Turkey has begun to play an assertive role in the western Balkans, working to reconcile Serbs and Bosniaks in Bosnia and rival Muslim groups in Sandzak.

Previous episodes of Turkish assertiveness in the region have been less welcome. The venue for Exit is the great fortress at Petrovaradin, on the banks of the Danube, built by the Austrians 300 years ago to guard what were then their territories against the Ottoman Turks.

The fortress presents a more welcoming face these days. But numbers at the festival were noticeably down this year, particularly among Serbs and other ex-Yugoslavs, who have been hit hard by the financial crisis. Slobodan Milosavljevic, Serbia’s trade minister, says he expects the economy to grow by 2% this year, following a 3% contraction in 2009. But confidence is faltering. One reason is that Serbia’s EU accession path has slowed. Many worry that Kosovo may slow it further.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. The International Court of Justice, asked by Serbia to consider the legality of the declaration, will deliver its advisory opinion on July 22nd. Serbia then plans to ask the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution demanding fresh talks on Kosovo’s status. But Serbia’s leaders have been warned that this will rile countries that have recognised Kosovo, including 22 of the 27 EU member states.

Serbia lodged a request for EU candidate status in December. But Germany has been signalling that it is in favour of an extended pause in EU enlargement after Croatia joins, probably in 2012 or 2013. If Serbia picks a fight over Kosovo, the Germans and others will have found the perfect excuse to leave Serbia out in the cold.

Serbia’s main strategic goal remains EU membership, says Mr Milosavljevic, but if this begins to look unattainable his country will further intensify relations with Russia, China and Turkey. In two years it will be a century since the Turks were finally ejected from the Balkans after more than 500 years. There is, it seems, never an exit from the strange ways of history.
Europe

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