Turkey's President Recep Erdogan is on his way to Serbia – along with a phalanx of welcomed investors. It is more than an economic visit: Ankara is looking for political inroads to the EU's backyard.
The two leaders were both sporting blue plaid blazers in April. Aleksandar Vucic was wearing it to vote in the presidential election, after he had already won the first round. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared in it at a voting station during the referendum that allowed him to consolidate power under a new presidential system. The near identical clothing gives the leaders a modern-casual look, which Twitter users in Serbia dubbed the "dictator's blazer."
More than style, both men show a fondness for absolute power, including belittling the opposition and critical media. They present themselves as tireless proponents for their people, creating jobs and prosperity.
Exactly that is the theme of Erdogan's visit to Belgrade on October 10, in the company of 150 business leaders. That may be nothing unusual for Erdogan, but the Serbian government is billing it as a major event that will mean more money for its citizens.
Turkey's interest, economists say, is exports, without which the country cannot hit its newly set goal of 5.5 percent growth. The Western Balkans offer Turkey a cheap workforce and a lower entry barrier into the EU market.
"EU accession for Turkey is all but dead," Atilla Yesilada, a Turkish economist and political commentator, told DW. "So it's a major advantage if Turkish companies produce in countries that are closer to the EU or even members themselves."
Vucic is interested in new investment and jobs. He is prepared to offer foreign investors subsidies of about 10,000 euros ($11,700) per job. The Serbian leader routinely proclaims his goal of having the strongest growth in Europe, but the country's numbers tell a different story. For three years, it's average GDP growth of 1.6 percent has been the worst in the region, behind Montenegro (7.7 percent), Kosovo (9.1 percent) and Macedonia (10.2 percent). It has one of Europe's lowest average monthly incomes at less than 400 euros.
Turkish investment would go primarily to industries that require the least amount of skills and innovation, Yesilada said. Low-cost jeans for Turkish companies are already made in Serbia by more than 1,000 workers, a number set to triple, according to the Serbian government.
Should Turkey enter Serbia's timber and dairy sectors, as has been rumored in the local press, it would be an "immediate boost for Balkan countries that at the same time makes them exporters for the Turkish economy," Yesilada said.
Turkish investment in the region remains measured, according to Biljana Stepanovic, the editor-in-chief of Nova Ekonomija, a Belgrade-based financial magazine. The Western Balkans comprises of six countries with a total population of roughly 20 million people, and each of those states – Serbia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro – is waiting its turn to enter the EU. Turkish exports there total less than $2 billion annually, below the level of those to Israel or Azerbaijan, countries of less than 10 million each. It remains to be seen how serious Turkey is about investing in the region, Stepanovic said.
Given the western Balkans' large Muslim population, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, Turkey may have more than a financial interest at stake. Mosques, schools and civil society organizations are already being funded.
"This is also about a neo-Ottoman rise. Turkey holds onto the illusion that its former colonies are waiting for it with open arms," Yesilada said. But Turkey has other good reasons to have political interests in the western Balkans, including regional stability, he explained. Given the Turkish government's view that the EU may soon be more rival than partner, "the Balkans can become a political playing field," said Yesilada.