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Peace and Stability in the Balkans

The Istanbul Declaration, signed by Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, calls for peace and economic development in a bid for regional stability and EU integration. But there are always spoilers.

The presidents of Turkey and Serbia and a member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency in Istanbul on 24 April signed a declaration advocating peace in Southeastern Europe and proclaiming swift European integration as a common goal.

“We confirm our readiness to take all the necessary steps to secure peace, stability and prosperity in the region,” says the document, which was signed by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, his Serbian counterpart Boris Tadic and Bosnian Presidency member Haris Silajdzic.

The three also agreed to hold regular trilateral meetings.

In the document, the three presidents welcomed the Serbian Parliament’s declaration on the atrocities committed against Bosniaks in Srebrenica in July 1995, and conveyed their determination to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbian parliament on 31 March passed a declaration condemning the murder of some 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica, which the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had in its verdict called genocide committed by the Bosnian Serb armed forces. The ICTY, in Bosnia’s suit against Serbia, ruled in February 2007 that Serbia was not responsible for genocide in Srebrenica, but was responsible for not doing enough to prevent it.

After the meeting, Gul said close relations between the three states were very important for regional stability and “a common European vision of the Balkans.

“Our cooperation and strategic partnership demonstrate that the Turks and Serbs have always needed close friendship, which is a historic step for the Balkans,” the Turkish president said.

Bosniak Presidency member Haris Silajdzic, who had been previously been reserved regarding relations with Belgrade, said he was pleased that Tadic had emphasized in Istanbul that Serbia would never do anything to harm Bosnia’s integrity. “That instills peace and calm into our hearts,” Silajdzic said.

Tadic said the Istanbul meeting represents a new beginning in relations between the three states. “All legitimate decisions by the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, representatives of all three peoples, are absolutely acceptable to Serbia. That way we demonstrate the principled position that Serbia, as a good neighbor to Bosnia-Herzegovina, will not interfere with the affairs of its neighboring, friendly country,” the Serbian president said.

Ambitious Turkish diplomacy

Turkish diplomacy played a crucial role in organizing the meeting, by clearly showing resolve to once again take on an important role in the Balkans. Over the last few months, Turkey has come conspicuously closer to Belgrade in terms of economy and diplomacy.

A Serbian government source told ISN Security Watch that Turkish diplomats mediated in getting the Bosniak political leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina to agree with the Serbian Parliament’s text on Srebrenica, even though it did not clearly refer to the murder of Bosniaks there as genocide.

In return, Belgrade is to tacitly agree to the extradition of Bosnian Ejup Ganic – who was arrested on a Serbian warrant in London in late February – to Sarajevo. Serbia is charging Ganic with war crimes, including the murder of Yugoslav People’s Army soldiers retreating from Sarajevo in May 1992.

Turkey is also showing increasing economic interest in Serbia. Turkish Airlines is mentioned as the sole serious strategic partner for Serbian air carrier JAT Airways. Also, Serbian Infrastructure Minister Milutin Mrkonjic recently said that the €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) construction of the Belgrade-Boljare highway is to be launched soon, with Turkish companies showing the most interest.

German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) senior research associate Dusan Reljic told ISN Security Watch that the meeting in Istanbul was important for “political relations in Bosnia and the region,” which have been greatly mitigated by the positive trends in Serbian-Croatian relations.

“If Bosnia-Herzegovina politicians become part of a new positive trend in the region – and the option has now been opened to the most skeptical among them so far, Silajdzic, then the entire region’s path to stabilization has been facilitated,” Reljic said.

Ian Bancroft, founder of Transconflict, an organization focusing on the western Balkans, says that the Istanbul meeting was important for Serbia as a means of showing it is ready to work on strengthening good neighborly relations, which the EU demands.

“The Istanbul meeting was an important step in this regard. In tandem with the Serbian Parliament's resolution on Srebrenica, Serbia has moved to take some of the political sting out of the Ejup Ganic case, insisting that it is prepared to let him stand trial in Bosnia,” Bancroft told ISN Security Watch.

Reljic said the meeting held great importance for Ankara as well. “Turkey claims its goal is to have good relations with all countries in the region and thus strengthen both its internal peace and international position, particularly with regards to the EU. That is why Turkey is aiming to be among the leading external factors in Southeastern Europe, along with the US, EU and Russia,” he said.

Reljic added that Ankara “is relying on mediation diplomacy, economic and financial projects and its traditional ties in the region, which are not limited to countries with a predominant Islamic tradition.”

According to him, good relations with Turkey are important to Serbia because of Bosnia and Kosovo, despite the fact that Ankara was among the first to recognize the independence of the latter, which Belgrade still considers its own.
“Turkish mediation has facilitated Belgrade’s political communication with those politicians in Sarajevo with whom it had been difficult up till now. That is a gain for Serbia’s policy that strengthens its position in relation to the EU and US. Turkey, together with the EU and US, may in the future also be able to enhance the establishing of direct political exchange between Belgrade and Pristina,” Reljic said.

Bancroft believes that Silajdzic also gained something from the event. “For Silajdzic, meanwhile, the meeting provided an opportunity to thank Turkey for its strong support for Bosnia, particularly its opposition to the planned closure of the [Office of the High Representative] OHR and its efforts to persuade NATO to grant Bosnia a Membership Action Plan (MAP). It also allowed Silajdzic to take a more pragmatic approach towards Serbia,” he said.

Always a spoiler

However, not everyone was satisfied with the Istanbul meeting. Criticism came from representatives of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, who said Silajdzic had not ensured the support of the country’s Croat and Serb presidency members for the signing of the declaration.

Bosnian Serb Presidency member Nebojsa Radmanovic said the declaration would not boost Bosnia’s stability or good neighborly relations with Serbia. Radmanovic added that by signing the declaration unilaterally, Silajdzic had violated the country’s constitution.

Although the Bosnian Serb leaders said the meeting in Istanbul would not affect their close relations with Belgrade, analysts disagree.

Tanja Topic, a political analyst of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Banja Luka, thinks the Republika Srpska leaders reacted negatively to the declaration because “they are losing their exclusive position in relations with Belgrade.

“The declaration comes at a time that is not good for Republika Srpska and the official political position, because the entity is in the middle of an election campaign, hence the document is not favorable for it in that sense either,” Topic told ISN Security Watch.

According to Topic, this puts additional distance between Belgrade and Banja Luka after the adoption of the Serbian parliament’s declaration on Srebrenica.

Bancroft agrees. “With Bosnia's general elections approaching, this feeling of isolation by Bosnia's Serbs will do little to contribute to regional stability and the prospects for constitutional reform in Bosnia, particularly as the country's economic situation - especially in the [Bosniak and Bosnian Croat-dominated] Federation - remains critical,” he said.

On the heated Balkan political scene it is nearly impossible to satisfy all parties; especially when poverty, unemployment and the distant prospect of EU membership are threatening to destabilize the region. But there has to be a starting point, and the Istanbul Declaration is perhaps a step in the right direction, provided it becomes a reality.

By Igor Jovanovic

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