Erdoğan rally divides opinion in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election rally in Bosnia and Herzegovina on Sunday has divided opinion in the Balkan state, wrote Laura Pitel in the Financial Times newspaper.

The rally was held as Turkey gears up for twin presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. Supporters bussed to the venue from as far away as Germany and Belgium joined locals to hear Erdoğan speak. “Show your strength to the whole world,” he told the audience as flags were waved and songs sung about Turkey’s president.

Serb and Croat politicians in the ethnically mixed state warned that the rally risked escalating ethnic tensions in a country still recovering from the conflict that ravaged the former Yugoslav republic in the 1990s.

“Very often Turkey behaves like an elephant in a china shop,” said Ešref Kenan Rašidagić, a political scientist at the University of Sarajevo. “Even if they come with the best intentions, by doing this, there is potential to upset a lot of people and to upset this delicate balance of power in Bosnia.”

Turkish influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina has increased in recent years. On Sunday, Turkish and Bosnian transport ministers signed an agreement to construct a new highway linking Sarajevo to the Serbian capital Belgrade, a projected with an estimated cost of 3 billion euros.

Like the rally, deepening trade and business relations between Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina also divide opinions.

The Party for Democratic Action (SDA), a Bosnian political party close to Turkey, argues that such relations are positive. It says Turkey supports the state’s goals of EU membership, NATO membership and regional stability, and does not interfere in local politics.

Many members of the Muslim Bosniak community also welcome Turkish involvement, saying that Bosnian Croats look to Croatia for support, and Bosnian Serbs to Serbia, whilst Bosniaks lack a similar patron. Turkey can fill this role.

Others, the newspaper said, worry that Ankara is meddling in Bosnia and Herzegovina, complicating “the contested process of consolidating Bosnia’s fractured state”.

One source of concern was the timing of the Turkish announcement that the rally would take place. This was made before some elements of the Bosnian government had been consulted.

A Bosnian woman watching the rally on Sunday said of Erdoğan: “If he’s visiting to talk about co-operation, that’s OK. But if he’s trying to get support for re-election he should do it in his own country. I’m a Bosniak. But I think it would be better for all three main groups here if nobody interfered.”