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Davutoglu in the Balkans…the best cevapi you'll ever eat…the Sanjak of Novi Pazar…

November 13, 2010

The other night at a friend’s flat in Nisantasi, I scrawled an out of proportion map that represents a city I can see, yet put on paper as a mess of splintery lines.

The inability to make the transference was painful. It is unlikely that Belgrade has ever made less sense. On paper at least. Kalemegdan fortress was impossible to miss though. There you can stand at what was once the end of the Ottoman Empire, watch the convergence of the Sava and Danube Rivers and imagine canon fire coming at you across the water, from what was once the edge of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. I did this regularly during some months spent in Belgrade in 2007- 2008. Geographically speaking, it put you in your place, and became even more scintillating when graffitied 1389’s began appearing on the sides of buildings throughout the city, the vandals’ way to mourn the loss of Kosovo.

The view from Kalemegdan. Belgrade, Serbia. December 2007.

Albanians. Ethnic cleansing. NATO. An independence declaration. We all know that story. Of course 2008 was, as they see it, the second time Serbs lost Kosovo. In 1389, the Ottomans defeated a Serb led army composed of many different Balkan nationalities, causing Serbia to lose Kosovo for the first time and eventually bringing a sultan appointed governance of Belgrade.

Kosovo may no longer be Serbia’s , but the Turks are back in the Balkans. They’ve arranged some photo-op handshakes between the prime ministers of Bosnia and Serbia. More interestingly, they have become active in Sandzak, an historic region in southern Serbia lodged between Kosovo and Bosnia and extending into Montenegro. The region retains part of its Ottoman era name, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, and is home to several hundred thousand Bosniaks, one of Serbia’s minority Muslim populations and a vital tipping point in the country’s closely won elections.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Sandzak recently. There were some business interests at stake. The Serbian government was, officially, also eager to see if Davutoglu could resolve a conflict between the heads of the country’s two rival Islamic Communities, muftis Muamer Zukorlic and Adem Zilkic.

Even the great mediator Davutoglu, however, was frustrated in his attempts to reconcile the differences between Zukorlic and Zilkic. One of my old tea drinking buddies claimed last October that Davutoglu had said, “I’ve negotiated with Sudan, I’ve negotiated with Armenia. No one is harder to negotiate with than Mufti Zukorlic.”

Davutoglu was up against a lot. The Zukorlic-Zilkic conflict was actually a proxy conflict for a struggle between Zukorlic and the Serbian government in Belgrade. This involved demands for autonomy, Zukorlic’s personal betrayal by Serbian President Boris Tadic, and Serb fears that Sandzak may one day end up as another Kosovo. Invoking the Serbian perspective, there was this grim joke told in the country in the weeks before Kosovo declared independence: “How is Serbia like Nokia?” The appropriate answer was, “It is smaller every year.”

Even if unsuccessful in solving the conflict, Davutoglu has taken Turkey back into the Balkans. According to Zukorlic, who I chatted with last month in Novi Pazar, Davutoglu is welcome to return anytime. What exactly the two men discussed in a meeting at Hotel Tadz in Novi Pazar was not something Zukorlic would get into. Yet two years ago when I first visited Sandzak the residents only spoke of the European Union as a possible savior from decades of discrimination and today’s economic oblivion. Today, they speak of the EU and Turkey with equal breath.

In the coming weeks I’ll have two new articles out on the current situation on Sandzak, an area worth watching if only for it having the best cevapi and manti in the Balkans. Not to mention a fascinating 400-year-old Turkish bathhouse.  Davutoglu’s excursion to Novi Pazar also deserved a bit of an extra focus. The Turks once controlled all the way to the edge of the Sava (at times even beyond). Their role may now have changed, but they are back in the Balkans.

A depiction of Đorđe Petrović Karađorđe, the leader of the first Serbian uprising against the Turks. Arandjelovac, Serbia. January 2008.

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