The bilateral relations between Turkey and Serbia have been high in every field since the establishment of diplomatic ties, Serbian Ambassador to Ankara Zoran Markovic said, underlining the significance of the ties in terms of maintaining stability in the region.
"We have to use the door for opportunities opened by the two presidents and find as much possible substance to fill it up," Markovic told Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview.
This year, the two countries marked the 140th year of the establishment of bilateral relations, which were formed after the independence and international recognition of the Serbian kingdom at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Ankara and Belgrade gradually enhanced their ties after the 2000s, particularly gaining momentum in the last 10 years in political, economic and cultural areas. While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic carried out five visits to Turkey in the last year on different occasions, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's recent visit to Belgrade marked the second in the last three years. Markovic emphasized that the frequent meetings between officials for high cooperation councils and at the presidential level are significant to keep exchanging ideas and drawing attention to the good chemistry between the presidents.
"The two presidents recognize the essence and importance of enhancing views. Apart from the political aspect, it also helps to introduce one nation to another and developing relations among people since there are a lot of stereotypes between them coming from history," the ambassador said.
Stressing that Ankara and Belgrade's ties are based on the concept of not interfering in each other's internal affairs, Markovic said that this friendship greatly contributes to maintaining stability and peace in the Balkans.
During Erdoğan's recent visit the fourth meeting of the trilateral summit of Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, which aims to further consolidate peace and stability in the Balkans, was also held in Belgrade with the participation of Erdoğan, Vucic and the chairman and members of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidential Council Sefik Dzeferovic, Zeljko Komsic and Milorad Dodik.
The first meeting of the Trilateral Balkan Summit was held in Istanbul on April 24, 2010, with the participation of the heads of states of Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. After the meeting, the Istanbul Declaration was adopted, which aims to facilitate comprehensive and advanced dialogue between the sides and bring them together to engage in joint projects.
Key venture: Sarajevo-Belgrade highway
Speaking on the Sarajevo-Belgrade Highway project, of which the groundbreaking ceremony took place as part of the summit with the participation of the leaders, the Serbian ambassador said it has significant political and economic meaning.
"The political meaning of the project is the connection of people from both sides. People who experienced the Yugoslavian period remember that if you were traveling from Sarajevo to Belgrade, you had to reach Ljubljana and Zagreb from Belgrade. It is necessary to connect Sarajevo and Belgrade directly to improve the interaction between people," Markovic said.
In December 2018, Turkey's Taşyapı Group signed a contract with the Serbian government for the design and construction of the first of two stretches of the highway. The project was brought up more than two years ago but hit a snag with 16 different routes proposed. However, the dispute over the routes ended following a meeting in Turkey between Erdoğan, Vucic and former Bosniak member of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina Bakir Izetbegovic in Istanbul in January 2018.
The Serbian ambassador stressed that the project will also make an economic contribution to the region by increasing trade and substantially reducing transportation time. "It will pass through underdeveloped regions both in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia and also will help the development of these regions," he added.
Erdoğan said in a recent visit that Ankara sees the highway not only as a project that will strengthen the relations but also as a friendship project that will contribute to regional peace and "unite hearts."
More flights, different spots for tourism
Markovic said the embassy organized promotional programs in Ankara to better introduce touristic spots for both countries, adding that increasing the number of flights will provide Serbians the opportunity to explore popular destinations such as Cappadocia and eastern Erzurum.
"The only obstacle for the issue is signing a code-share agreement between Air Serbia and Turkish Airlines. I am expecting a draft agreement from authorities in Belgrade to be delivered to Turkish counterparts to push both companies to expedite the deal," he said.
Currently, Turkish Airlines conducts two flights daily from Istanbul to Belgrade, while two others are operated by Pegasus. The new agreement envisages an additional flight from Turkey to Serbia. "If Turkish Airlines is not interested, Air Serbia is also eager to launch an additional flight between the two destinations," he added.
Serbia also increased the number of honorary consulates in Turkey, recently opening sites in northwestern Edirne and Antalya, and also plans to establish in popular holiday resorts of Bodrum, Alanya and Cappadocia. Also, during the last meeting, Serbian authorities approved the establishment of a new Turkish Consulate in Novi Pazar.
"More important than opening the consulate in Novi Pazar would be establishing a direct flight from Turkey to the newly established Morava airport in Kraljevo, which is located very close to Novi Pazar, with the aim to connect Istanbul's nearly million Serbian-Bosniak population to their hometowns," Markovic emphasized.
Business opportunities in third markets
Besides developing political relations, trade volume and bilateral investments between Turkey and Serbia have also significantly increased in recent years. The two countries had a trade volume of about $580 million in 2012, which has already doubled and reached $1.2 billion as the two further set a target of $2 billion for the short term and $5 billion for the long term.
Turkish investments in Serbia have also risen from only $1 million in 2011 to $200 million in 2018 and provided employment for approximately 8,000 people in the country. The number of Turkish companies operating in Serbia was around 130 in 2015, and it has already exceeded 800.
Emphasizing the rising numbers in trade, Markovic stressed there is also a great opportunity for the two countries' companies for doing business jointly in third countries. "Both countries have significant experience in organic food production. For example, a 100-kilometer circle around Kraljevo is mostly agricultural area and can be set aside to jointly produce fresh fruits and sell to third markets," he said.
The Serbian ambassador added that Turkey's construction companies also can cooperate with their Serbian counterparts, "which were recognizable all over the third world in the Yugoslavian era and carried out significant projects in countries like Libya, Iraq and Egypt in the past," and benefit from each other's network and experience.