Montenegro may not be on everyone's radar, but the small Adriatic nation is becoming a magnet for Turkish companies. Old animosities between the two countries seem forgotten. Jelena Kulidzan reports from Podgorica.
The "Vektra" building in Podgorica is considered the business core of the Montenegrin capital and the meeting point for businessmen, politicians, as well as people simply wanting to be seen. Amid the bustling crowd, the newly opened "Istanbul Corner" restaurant is an island of calm, standing out from the modern-looking cafes nearby. The owner, 31-year-old Kaya Dogus, greets DW with a smile and a cup of Turkish tea.
"I've been living in Montenegro for nearly a year," Kaya says. "I moved here completely by accident. | came in to buy an apartment in Budva and just thought I could live here and start a business," he told DW. "I like it, because it's peaceful and safe. My wife and children are now with me."
Kaya is just one of around 2,500 Turkish citizens living in Montenegro, which has a population of about 620,000. Most of Kaja's compatriots arrived over the last two years, fleeing the worsening political and economic crises in Turkey.
Montenegro's former ambassador to Turkey, Ramo Bralic, says that Turkish entrepreneurs are seeking to expand away from the homeland.
"There have been political and economical changes happening in Turkey for a long while now, which obstructed its development and created a framework that is not conducive to new investments," he told DW.
According to data for the first half of 2018, Turkey is now the fourth largest foreign investor in Montenegro with the number of Turkish companies setting up shop there up 30-fold over the past three years. The Balkan state is a member of NATO and is negotiating its entry to the EU, and that plays a important role for Turkish entrepreneurs, according to the head of the CrnaGoraTurska (MontenegroTurkey) business portal, Jasmin Spahic.
"Turks see the Balkans as an area that is closer to Western Europe and has good investment opportunities," he told DW. "Also, it's a tourist country, and it is well known that Turkey is one the leaders in that field."
Montenegro also has a huge appeal due to its many similarities with the Turkish homeland, including cuisine, culture, and lifestyle — all of it reminders of the Ottomans' centuries long presence in the Balkans.
"We even use some of the same words," says restaurant owner Kaya. "The nature, the coastline, the people, the culture — everything here reminds me of Turkey."
'Turks don't mingle'
The Turkish influx to Montenegro took off in early 2017, with Turkish companies especially keen to buy homes and office space on the Adriatic coast. The tourist town of Budva now boasts countless Turkish shops selling leather, jewelry, souvenirs, and famous Turkish delicacies.
"The old town area and its surroundings are slowly beginning to look like the malls in Istanbul, because there are about 20 shops that have been bought or rented out by Turkish shopkeepers or restaurant owners," says local journalist Vuk Lajovic. "They are now a visible community in Budva, but unlike Russians, for example, who used to buy a lot of seaside real estate, the Turks don't mingle with us."
Montenegro's history is marked by numerous wars and uprisings against the Ottoman Empire. But this troubled past seems to matter very little to modern-day Montenegrins and Turks. Kaya, the restaurant owner, says he feels welcome in Podgorica.
"If you are a person from Turkey or the Middle East and you want to start a business in Germany or Denmark, you don't feel welcome, because there are a lot of us out there. I know, because I lived in Denmark for years."
However, unlike Germany or Denmark, Montenegro's administrative bodies do not always function smoothly. Kaya says that present-day Montenegro is comparable to the way things functioned in Turkey some 30 or 40 years ago.
"It's very hard to do business in Montenegro," he said. "The system is very confusing and complicated. The paperwork, the administration, it all takes a long time. You go to one place to take out a document, and they send you someplace else. Then you go to the other place, and they say: no, it's not for us, you need to go elsewhere. And then those people at the third location send you back where you started."
Preparing the ground in Montenegro
Years before the Turkish influx began, the Turkish agency for cooperation and coordination (TIKA) was busy preparing the ground for its nationals in Montenegro. Their local branch opened in 2007 and over the past 11 years it has launched various projects and initiatives worth over $20 million (€17.2 million), most of them aimed at improving education, healthcare, and cultural cooperation.
Kaya, the owner of "The Istanbul Corner," expects the Turkish community in Montenegro to continue growing. At the same time, former ambassador Ramo Bralic believes that the influx of Turkish money cannot last forever.
"We have small and mid-size businesses cropping up, but Montenegro does not have enough capacity to absorb more powerful, bigger capital from Turkey," he said.
Still, he says the Turkish influx is a win-win situation for the country.
"I think that the Turkish presence can only be beneficial for Montenegro."