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Serbia: Sandzak Muslims Optimistic Before Serb Polls

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 9 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Less than one month before parliamentary and local elections in rump-Yugoslavia, the Muslim of Sandzak appear optimistic about the outcome.

Sandzak, a former Ottoman-Turkish province known as the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, was divided in 1913 between Serbia and Montenegro. It still is, although the two former republics form now a single state of rump-Yugoslavia. Sandzak borders with Bosnia-Herzegovina to the west and Kosovo to the east. Two-thirds of its population is Muslim.

In the early days of the Yugoslav war, analysts feared that fighting in Bosnia could spill over into Sandzak then spread to Kosovo and from there to Albania and Macedonia, becoming a full-fledged Balkan conflagration.

This did not happen, and for a variety of reasons. Some of them might have something to do with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's apparent decision that there was little to gain and much to lose from a bloodbath on rump-Yugoslav territory. Others reflected the effects of international pressure to prevent a wider war. And still others were Sandzak Muslims' isolation from Bosnian Muslim forces and their tolerable relationship with Montenegrin regional government.

Last week's agreement on mutual diplomatic recognition signed in Paris by Milosevic and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, as well as the one-month-old agreement between Milosevic and Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova on re-opening of Albanian schools after a six-year hiatus, are likely further to help ease the concerns of Sandzak's Muslims.

The Milosevic-Izetbegovic agreement confirms rump-Yugoslavia's recognition of the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It says that confrontation and conflict between the two are to give way to mutual cooperation and progress. The accord lifts visa requirements and other special restrictions on travel of Bosnian and rump-Yugoslav citizens to each others' states.

Many Sandzak Muslims consider Bosnia-Herzegovina to be their motherland. They now call themselves "Bosnjaci" or Bosniaks. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been issuing Bosnian passports to Sandzak Muslims since 1992, effectively granting them Bosnian citizenship.

Early this year, the exiled Sandzak Muslim politician Sulejman Ugljanin said he was lobbying Bosnian government to press in international negotiations a demand that rump Yugoslavia's Muslims, including those in Sandzak, have equal rights with the Serbs and Montenegrins. He said Serbian police and civilians had been using a combination of repression and threats to persuade the Muslims to leave. He said that by early this year 75,000 of them were exiled.

Ugljanin, president of the "Muslim National Council of Sandzak" and co-founder of the "Party of Democratic Action (SDA) of Sandzak," returned last week from three years of exile to a hero's welcome in Novi Pazar. He had been a highly successful candidate in the last prewar elections in 1990, but fled to Turkey and later to Bosnia after Yugoslav authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

The SDA in Sandzak is divided into several local offshoots, including, "SDA of Yugoslavia," "SDA of Sandzak," and "Rights SDA." Ugljanin heads the "List for Sandzak," which includes three separate SDA groups, the Liberal Bosnjak Organization and the Reform Democratic Party. Ugljanin's main rival, Rasim Ljajic, heads the "Bosnjak's List of Sandzak," which includes his own SDA offshoot and the Party of Sandzak Bosnians.

A coalition of Serbian-led leftwing parties is also fielding several Muslim candidates.

Ljajic as recently as two weeks ago was calling for forming a unified list with Ugljanin to ensure a united Muslim vote in the province. This appeal was not successful.

The independent Belgrade daily "Nova Borba" quoted Ljajic yesterday as saying that Sarajevo's support, that is that of the Bosnian Muslims, would be a determining factor in the race. It appears that this support may be given to Ugljanin.

In the past, Ugljanin was considered an outspoken Muslim nationalist. He has recently adopted a relatively moderate position and, rather than calling for a merger of Sandzak with Bosnia, recognizes Bosnia as a separate and sovereign state.