Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan received a rapturous welcome on Wednesday during a visit to the Serbian town of Novi Pazar, capital of the Muslim majority Sandzak region that has seen mass emigration to Turkey since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.
Erdogan, on a two-day visit to Serbia, hopes to boost Turkey’s economic and cultural influence in the Balkan region, which was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, at a time of increased tensions with the European Union and United States.
“We have special relations with this region. Your happiness is our happiness, your pain is our pain,” Erdogan told more than 10,000 people gathered in front of the municipality building.
“Sandzak is the biggest bridge linking us with our brothers in Serbia,” he said, with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic standing close by.
Turkish influence is already strong among fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, but mainly Orthodox Christian Serbia is traditionally much closer to Russia. However, Belgrade and Ankara, which both want to join the EU but are frustrated by the slow pace of progress, are keen to increase bilateral trade.
Erdogan said Turkey would finance the construction of a road linking Sandzak with the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, reconstruct an Ottoman-era hammam and build a bridge in Novi Pazar.
In Belgrade on Tuesday, Erdogan pledged gas and Turkish investments for the Balkans and he signed deals with Vucic to expand a bilateral free trade agreement.
In Novi Pazar, local people waved Turkish flags and the green and blue flags of Serbia’s Muslim community, and chanted Allahu Akbar (God is greatest). A big banner read “Welcome Sultan” and was signed by “Ottoman grandchildren”.
“Erdogan is our nation’s leader, Vucic is our state leader, this is the greatest day for us Muslims to have them both here,” Ismail Ismailovic, 28, from the nearby town of Tutin, farmer, sporting long beard and white embroidered Muslim skull cap.
It was a far cry from the 1990s when Serbia and Turkey were sharply at odds in the conflicts that tore apart Yugoslavia. Turkey sees itself as the historic defender of Muslims across the Balkan region.
“I know I am not going to be welcomed here like Erdogan is,” said Vucic, who was a firebrand Serbian nationalist during the wars of the 1990s but has turned strongly pro-EU. “But at least I can come out and say that I am working in your best interest.”