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Turkey and the Intractable Serbia-Kosovo Dispute

20 Dec 2023

Turkey and the Intractable Serbia-Kosovo Dispute

20 Dec 2023

In recent years, Turkey has conducted a relatively successful foreign policy in the Western Balkans. Ankara enjoys vibrant relationships with the region’s countries as well as various ethnic and religious groups—a notable shift from past times when Turkey’s purpose in the Western Balkans was largely about standing up for local Muslim populations, chiefly the Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Yet, as tensions heat up with new waves of geopolitical instability aggravating old fractures in the Western Balkans, Turkish policymakers will be challenged to maintain a balanced foreign policy in this part of the former Ottoman Empire.

The unresolved conflict between Serbia and Kosovo remains one of Europe’s most intractable territorial disputes. With the U.S. and all but five of the EU’s members recognizing Kosovo’s independence, Washington and Brussels have invested considerable diplomatic energy into trying to bring Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence and normalize Belgrade-Pristina relations. Yet, such efforts have proven futile. Belgrade firmly maintains that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia, and foreign powers recognizing Kosovo’s independence constitutes an assault on Serbia’s sovereign rights and territorial dignity. Now, as tensions between Serbia and Kosovo heat up, many observers believe that Russia is encouraging Belgrade to take actions vis-à-vis Kosovo that undermine Western interests in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine that erupted in February 2022.

Turkey has an interesting position in relation to Serbia and Kosovo. Turkey and Serbia’s economic ties have deepened and become more sophisticated in recent years, while Ankara maintains a multidimensional and institutionally robust alliance with Kosovo. Although Turkey’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence since 2008 constitutes a source of friction in Ankara-Belgrade relations, it has not prevented Turkey and Serbia from elevating bilateral relations to new heights. It is quite telling that after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared in 2013 that “Kosovo is Turkey, and Turkey is Kosovo,” Belgrade responded by strongly denouncing the Turkish head-of-state’s statement, only for Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to call Erdoğan a “true friend” of Serbia who plays a constructive and stabilizing role in northern Kosovo one decade later.[1]

Ultimately, what Ankara wants is more stability and prosperity in this part of Europe. This is so that Turkish businessmen and investors can thrive in the Western Balkans and Ankara can gain greater geopolitical and geoeconomic influence. Pursuing this goal has required Turkey to deal with all the major players in the region. In general, Turkey seeks to play a balancing role in the Western Balkans that puts Ankara between Serbia and ethnic Serb actors on one side and Bosniaks and Albanians on the other. However, the rising tensions between Belgrade and Pristina will test Turkey’s ability to conduct a friends-of-all foreign policy in Europe’s “inner courtyard”.

The “Golden Age” in Serbia and Turkey’s Partnership

Turkey’s bilateral relationship with Serbia underscores how Ankara’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Western Balkans is based on realism rather than religion, ideology, or emotion. Of all Western Balkan countries, it is Christian Orthodox-majority Serbia, as opposed to any of the Muslim-majority states, which has the deepest economic relationship with Turkey. There are approximately 3,300 Turkish firms that operate in Serbia, and 21 of them are factories. In 2022, bilateral trade volume reached approximately US$2.7 billion.[2] “Despite not being majority Muslim or ready to embrace the Ottoman heritage in the region, Serbia is the biggest country in the Western Balkans and the biggest economy, thus making it attractive for Turkey,” explained Dr. Igor Novakovic, the research director of the International and Security Affairs Centre – ISAC Fund.[3]

In 2015, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry website released a statement about Ankara’s relationship with Belgrade being at its “highest level” in history.[4] Serbia’s then-Minister of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications, Rasim Ljajić, said that Serbo-Turkish economic relations had entered their “golden era.”[5] Dilek Kütük, a PhD candidate at Istanbul Medeniyet University and Balkan expert, explained that the partnership is largely shaped by Turkey and Serbia’s “shared vision for economic growth, political stability, and regional cooperation,” with certain sectors such as energy, education, tourism, and culture playing important roles in the growth of bilateral ties.[6]

Another factor that greatly contributed to the strengthening of Serbo-Turkish relations came in July 2016 amid the aftermath of the failed coup plot, which sought to topple Turkey’s government. In contrast to many of Turkey’s allies in the West, which were silent or seemingly neutral amid that chaotic crisis, the leadership in Belgrade quickly expressed solidarity with Erdoğan, the Turkish government, and Turkish society. Vučić declared that he and other officials in Belgrade wanted to see democracy, stability, and peace restored in Turkey, maintaining that this would serve the interests of Turkey, the Middle East, and Serbia.[7] At the time, the reactions from governments and the media in the U.S., the UK, Germany, and other Western countries prompted Ankara to grow suspicious of these NATO allies and their motivations for not decisively coming to the defense of Turkish President Erdoğan’s government. It was an episode that forced Turkey’s leadership to reconsider the strength of its relationships around the world, and Serbia earned goodwill in Ankara due to its response to the attempted overthrow of Turkey’s elected government.

In a historical context, this “golden age” in Ankara-Belgrade relations is remarkable. It is difficult to exaggerate how much improvement there has been in relations in recent history. Only 15 years ago, most observers would have had a difficult time imagining Serbo-Turkish relations becoming as warm as they are today.

Many Turks were emotional during the Bosnian civil war (1992-95), when the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević was supporting Bosnian-Serb forces responsible for the Srebrenica genocide and other mass killings of Bosniaks. Milošević’s nickname in Turkey during those years was the “butcher of Belgrade” and many Turks saw Serbia as a country that embodied European Islamophobia. Turkey’s alliance with Kosovo and Ankara’s (real or perceived) “neo-Ottoman” ambitions have at times informed Belgrade’s perceptions of Turkey as a threat to Serbia.

Despite such factors fueling degrees of tension between Turkey and Serbia at previous points in modern history and, to some extent, remaining sore points in bilateral affairs, Ankara and Belgrade maintain a relationship that is highly pragmatic.

From the Turkish side, it is easy to understand why Ankara has prioritized good relations with Belgrade. Of all former Yugoslav republics, Serbia is geographically the largest and it is located at the intersection of the Central European plains and the Balkan Peninsula.[8] The presence of ethnic Serbs across Serbia’s neighbors in the Western Balkans also factors into Ankara’s vested interests in positive relations with Belgrade, explained Dr. Vuk Vuksanovic, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy. Comparable only to Albanians, ethnic Serbs are the “most consequential” ethnic group in the Western Balkans, adding to Ankara’s view that stronger ties to Belgrade are important to Turkey’s interests in this part of Europe.[9]

Similar to how Turkish officials look at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a leading player in the Arab world, policymakers in Ankara tend to view Serbia as somewhat of a “regional trend setter.”[10] Certain social, cultural, and political trends that take off in Belgrade tend to be replicated elsewhere in Serbia’s immediate neighborhood, leading Ankara to view Belgrade as an important European capital with much influence in the Western Balkans.[11]

In terms of southeastern Europe’s geopolitical order, Ankara is always concerned about a Serbo-Greek alliance forming as well as an axis between Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria, which was the trio of countries that defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War (1912-13).[12] Therefore, Turkish officials view a strengthening of Ankara-Belgrade relations as a way of minimizing the chances of such alliances or axes forming at the expense of Turkey’s interests in the Balkans, according to Dr. Vuksanovic.[13]

Serbia, which has been conducting an increasingly multi-vector foreign policy with Vučić at the helm, has its own set of interests in strengthening relations with Turkey. “Serbia has to consider Turkey and its interests, as it is a significant regional power with apparent interests in the Balkans,” explained Dr. Novakovic.[14] Policymakers in Belgrade assess that positive ties with Ankara serve to prevent Turkey from being excessively on the side of Bosniaks or Albanians in their regional disputes.

The Serbian leadership views Turkey as “something of a gate” to the Middle East, which serves to prevent larger flows of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in West Asia.[15] As Belgrade seeks to expand its geoeconomic reach into the Middle East, Serbian officials recognize the importance of Turkey as a major economic powerhouse that can help Serbian companies tap into new markets and grow networks.

Energy is a factor too. With Serbia wanting to end its nearly complete reliance on Russian gas while pressure from the West comes down on Belgrade, improved ties with Turkey enables the Central European country to access gas from Azerbaijan via Turkey.

On 14 November, Belgrade and Baku signed an energy deal under which Serbia will purchase 400 million cubic meters of natural gas from Azerbaijan beginning in 2024 once the Bulgarian-Serbia Interconnector is completed.[16] Serbia’s Minister of Mining and Energy, Dubravka Djedovic Handanovic, stated that Belgrade expects the volumes of Azerbaijan-sourced gas that Serbia imports to increase in the years ahead.[17] Djedovic Handanovic went as far as saying that by 2026, her country could begin receiving a “billion cubic meters of gas” from Azerbaijan on an annual basis. She said: “Now we achieve the strategic goal to diversify suppliers [and] additionally strengthen our position as a transit country for gas supply [to] Central Europe.”[18] The growth of a gas partnership between Serbia and Azerbaijan will naturally contribute to stronger relations between Belgrade and Ankara by virtue of geography and the close Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance.

The Kosovar-Turkish Alliance

Despite the extent to which Turkey has deepened its relationship with Serbia in recent years, Ankara is extremely close to Kosovo. No power in the Islamic world comes close to matching Turkey’s importance as one of Kosovo’s allies. Cultural, economic, military, and religious ties bond Turkey and Kosovo in unique ways.

Indeed, the Ankara-Pristina alliance is truly special. Having existed under Ottoman rule for roughly 500 years, Turkish influence is highly visible in Kosovo. There are many people-to-people links, with many dual Kosovar-Turkish citizens present in both countries. Many Turkish people have their roots in Kosovo. There is also a large Turkish presence in Prizren, Kosovo’s second-largest city.

After the 1998-99 war in and near Kosovo ended, Turkey became a major investor in Kosovo’s economy. In 2010, Kosovo’s government signed a contract with Enka (a Turkish construction firm) and its joint venture partner, Bechtel, to build the Merdare-Morina highway, which links Kosovo and Albania.[19] Four years later, this consortium signed a contract to construct another highway linking Kosovo and Macedonia.[20]

In 2012, the Pristina government privatized KEK Distribution and Supply (KEDS), Kosovo’s state-owned power supplier, and a consortium of Limak and Çalık Holdings, which are two Turkish investors, purchased 100 percent of KEDS’ shares for EUR 26.3 million.[21] Also, the Turkish-French consortium Limak-Aéroports de Lyon built a new terminal building and accompanying facilities at Pristina Adem Jashari International Airport in 2013 and secured operational rights for 20 years.[22]

Turkey’s military has been an important contributor to the NATO peacekeeping force, the Kosovo Force (KFOR). In response to a request from KFOR, Turkey sent a commando battalion to Kosovo in the immediate aftermath of the violence that injured 31 soldiers in the Hungarian and Italian contingents in KFOR in Zvecan on 29 May.[23], [24] Then, in October, Turkey began formally heading KFOR, taking over from Italy and underscoring Ankara’s important role as one of the key NATO members in the mission.

Through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), the Turks have put resources into the restoration of Kosovo’s Ottoman mosques, including the Pristina Carshia Mosque and Gazi Mehmet Pasha Mosque.[25] Over the years, TİKA has also supported various Islamic institutions and unions in Kosovo and sponsored schools in Pristina, Prizren, Peja, and Gjakova, some of which teach Turkish and provide students with Quranic instruction. Such activities on TİKA’s part have even led to some voices in the West portraying Turkey as advancing an Islamist agenda, which has contributed to “the radicalization of Kosovar youth.”[26]

On 18 February 2008, Turkey joined Afghanistan, Albania, Costa Rica, France, Senegal, the UK, and the U.S. as the first eight countries worldwide to recognize Kosovo’s independence. In July 2021, Erdoğan announced that Ankara would lobby other countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence. “Now 114 countries recognize Kosovo, and we want that number to increase. We hope that this year at the United Nations General Assembly, at the meeting I will have with [U.S. President Joe] Biden, we will discuss this topic again, that we will work together on the recognition of Kosovo,” declared the Turkish president.[27]

Although China and Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council means that Kosovo will probably never be an official UN member state, increasing the number of countries worldwide that recognize Kosovo’s independence is always a high-ranking priority for Pristina. Therefore, Ankara’s efforts to bring more countries into the recognition camp serve to greatly increase the extent to which Kosovo values its alliance with Turkey.

Across the spectrum, all major players in Pristina’s political arena are friendly to Turkey and its president. The value that Kosovo places on its relationship with Ankara was illustrated by an operation waged by Kosovo police in March 2018, in which they arrested six Turkish nationals who were connected to schools in Kosovo linked to the Fetullah Gülen movement (FETÖ), which the Turkish government held responsible for the failed coup plot on 15 July 2016.[28] Although human rights organizations criticized Kosovo’s authorities for this operation, these deportations served to gain Kosovo much goodwill with the Turkish leadership.

There’s an important defense dimension to the bilateral relationship. In late 2022, Turkey sold Bayraktar TB2 drones to Kosovo.[29] Eight months later, on 16 July, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti showcased these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Given how Turkish drones made major differences in conflicts in Azerbaijan, Syria, Ethiopia, and Libya, the decision to buy drones from Turkey was logical given Kosovo’s threat perceptions of Serbia. The violence at a Serbian monastery in northern Kosovo on 24 September, which resulted in four deaths, and the alleged arrest of Kosovar police by Serbian forces inside Kosovo four months earlier contributed to Pristina’s doubts surrounding the wisdom of heavily relying on KFOR for Kosovo’s national defense. With the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the White House, many in Kosovo wonder how solid Washington’s commitment is to NATO and the alliance’s force in Kosovo. Within this context, Kosovo’s possession of Turkish drones is important to Pristina’s ability to maintain deterrence against any infringement on Kosovo’s sovereignty without reliance on the West.

By purchasing these Turkish drones, Kosovo sent a powerful message to Serbia about Pristina’s ability to defend itself from any future actions that Belgrade might possibly take. At the same time, Ankara had an important message to Pristina that, against the backdrop of the U.S. and EU becoming increasingly accommodative of Serbia, Turkey would be both willing and capable of filling a void to ensure that Kosovo’s defense and security requirements are met. As one Kosovar official said: “Within Kosovo’s leadership, the ongoing appeasement of Serbia by the West has brought Turkey’s strategic importance into sharp focus.”[30]

This issue of Turkey’s military support for Kosovo constitutes the main source of friction between Ankara and Belgrade. Pristina’s purchase of Turkish drones elicited an angry response from Serbia’s authorities. Yet, officials in Belgrade were keen to emphasize that the drone sale would not derail Serbia and Turkey’s work to strengthen bilateral relations, and Belgrade continued to recognize the importance of working with Turkey.

However, Ankara’s sale of drones to Kosovo did result in Serbia purchasing drones for itself from Turkey, instead giving China an opportunity to sell UAVs to Belgrade. Dr. Vuksanovic explained that these dynamics will require Ankara to act cautiously in navigating tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, particularly given the fact that the Serbian defense industry is far more advanced than Kosovo’s and offers Turkish arms manufacturers much in terms of accessing new markets.


Turkey seeks to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans, serving as a stabilizing force that can mediate between Belgrade and Pristina. At a time when Kosovo has lost a degree of confidence in the U.S. and Western European powers, Turkey is committed to filling a gap. By seizing an opportunity to present itself to Pristina as an invaluable ally at a time when the West’s attention is mostly on Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, Turkey stands to gain greater clout in southern/central Europe.

Nonetheless, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. is set to remain Pristina’s most important security partner with the American military base, Camp Bondsteel, located in southeastern Kosovo near Ferizaj. Ultimately, while Turkey can fill some gaps and gain greater importance as an ally in Pristina’s eyes, it is safe to assume that Ankara will need to formulate its policies vis-à-vis Kosovo in close coordination with Washington, ultimately limiting the extent to which Turkey can pursue a truly independent foreign policy toward Kosovo. However, as Pristina aims to become less reliant on the U.S., the chances are good that Turkey’s importance to Kosovo will increase.

Officials in Pristina, however, are unlikely to always have Turkey on their side as tensions between Kosovo and Serbia remain high. Although Turkey will probably never abandon its recognition of Kosovo’s independence, Ankara will be determined to maintain a delicate balance between Pristina and Belgrade in the years to come. Turkish policymakers understand that successfully increasing Ankara’s influence in this part of Europe and playing a peacemaker role in the Western Balkans require good relations with Serbia.

[1] “Turkey eyes Balkan influence amid Serbia-Kosovo tensions,” Asia Times, June 20, 2023,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Igor Novakovic, Interview with the Author, November 10, 2023.

[4] “Serbia-Turkey Relations Enter Unlikely “Golden Age,”” Balkanist, December 17, 2015,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dilek Kütük, Interview with the Author, November 13, 2023.

[7] “Vucic called on the citizens of Serbia not to go to Turkey,” BLIC, July 16, 2016,

[8] Vuk Vuksanovic, Interview with the Author, November 10, 2023.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Igor Novakovic, Interview with the Author, November 10, 2023.

[15] Vuk Vuksanovic, Interview with the Author, November 10, 2023.

[16] “Serbia signs gas supply deal with Azerbaijan,” Reuters, November 15, 2023,

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Serbia Secures Gas Deal with Azerbaijan,” BARRON’S, November 15, 2023,

[19] “Turkey Funds Renovation Projects in Kosovo,” BalkanInsight, July 4, 2018,

[20] “Bechtel Selected to Build New Motorway Linking Kosovo to Macedonia,” Bechctel, July 1, 2014,

[21] “Turkish group acquires Kosovo power supplier,” Infrastructure Investor, October 25, 2012,

[22] “Turkish, French firms invest 140 mln euros in Kosovo airport,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 24, 2013,–56730.

[23] “Turkish forces arrive in Kosovo to bolster NATO-led peacekeepers after recent violence,” AP, June 5, 2023,

[24] “Dozens of KFOR Troops, Protesters Injured As Clashes Break Out In Serb-Majority Towns In Northern Kosovo,” RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty, May 29, 2023,

[25] “Turkish aid agency to restore 2 mosques in Kosovo,” Anadolu Agency, June 11, 2018,

[26] David L. Phillips, “Turkey’s Islamist Agenda in Kosovo,” Huffpost, December 29, 2015,

[27] “Why did Erdogan start the “battle for Kosovo” from Cyprus?” b92, July 21, 2021,

[28] “Kosovo arrests six Turks over links to Gulen schools – police,” Reuters, March 29, 2018,

[30] Ibid.

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