* Turkish president says will build road, boost trade
* Balkan region susceptible to big-power rivalries
* Turkish influence strong in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania
By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan pledged gas, investment and support for the Balkans on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to expand influence in a region frustrated by the slow pace of EU accession.
His two-day trip to Serbia - a mainly Orthodox Christian country at fierce odds with Turkey during Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse - could help grow Turkey’s role in a region that spent centuries under Ottoman rule and remains susceptible to big-power rivalries.
Turkish influence is already strong among fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. Serbia is Russia’s closest ally in the Balkans.
“Together with Serbia and with the entire Balkans, we want to make steps to resolve all the problems,” Erdogan told reporters in Belgrade, saying Ankara planned to build a road between Serbia and Bosnia.
Erdogan and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, signed a political declaration to create a cooperation body that would meet annually to coordinate joint projects.
Erdogan expressed confidence that Russia would not object to a Turkish plan to transfer natural gas from its TurkStream project to Serbia.
“We do not want any division of the Balkans or that someone might see those countries as their sphere of influence. We oppose all those who want that,” Erdogan told a business forum.
The visit, and Erdogan’s thanks to Vucic for his support during a failed coup in 2016, will not go unnoticed in the European Union, where some diplomats are concerned about deepening authoritarianism among some Balkan leaders in the absence of tangible progress towards EU accession.
Serbia has to balance its ambition of joining the EU with an affinity felt by many Serbs for fellow Orthodox Russia. It also badly needs investment to grow an economy still in transition from communism and recovering from the demise of Yugoslavia.
“(Turkish) relations with the EU are not that great at the moment; the Balkans is the closest they (Turks) can get to Europe,” Mahmud Busatlija, a foreign investment consultant in Belgrade, told Reuters of Erdogan’s first to Serbia since 2010 when he was prime minister.
“This visit is meant to build up political ties between the two countries. Whether that political cooperation will result in investment depends to a great extent on Serbia and what it can offer to Turkish companies.”
Some 70 Turkish companies do business in Serbia and trade exchanges are expected to reach $1 billion this year. Erdogan said they should target $5 billion and signed deals with Vucic to expand a free trade agreement to include sunflower oil and beef.
Erdogan was due to visit an Ottoman-era fortress in Belgrade later on Tuesday before travelling south on Wednesday to Novi Pazar, centre of the Muslim-majority region of Sandzak that has witnessed large-scale emigration to Turkey since the wars of the 1990s. (Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Matt Robinson and Robin Pomeroy)