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Yugoslavia: Bosniaks In Sandzak Region Seek Recognition (Part 1)

  • Jolyon Naegele

A movement is afoot among Bosniaks in Serbia's ethnically mixed Sandzak region to hold an internationally supervised referendum on the area's status. This comes amid occasional violent clashes between Bosniaks and Serbs and heightened attention from the international community. This is the first of a two-part report.

Novi Pazar, Serbia; 28 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An ethnic Bosniak party in Serbia's southwestern Sandzak region is calling on Serbian and Montenegrin authorities, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, and the Council of Europe, to help organize a referendum on the region's status in Sandzak municipalities on both sides of the Serbian-Montenegrin boundary.

Attempts were made to hold a similar referendum on Sandzak's status in 1991, but Yugoslav authorities refused to recognize it.

Party for Sandzak (SZS) Chairman Fevzija Muric said this week lawmakers should include the issue of Sandzak in the constitutional charter and related documents currently being drafted to establish a new state, Serbia-Montenegro, to replace the current Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Muric described Sandzak as "a potential powder keg." But he said finding the right resolution would guarantee a lasting and stable peace in the region and that holding a referendum on Sandzak's status "would be the most democratic way of launching the process of adopting a new constitution."

Muric criticized the Yugoslav state for trying to politically activate the Islamic community in Sandzak, allegedly in a bid, as he put it, to "wipe out" the region's Bosniak population. All this, he said, is to serve the interests of the international community in the post-11 September world. "The [government's aim is that] the international community at some point turns against the Bosniaks and their political interests and against Sandzak. On the other hand, I see the attempt to split the state and government in this area as a throwback to the old days of Slobodan Milosevic when Bosniaks were seen as a religious community deserving of religious rights but denied their human and civil rights and freedoms and their political and national [ethnic] rights," Muric said.

The Islamic community responded, branding Muric's remarks as "odd and baseless." Sandzak mufti Muamed Efendi Zukorlic, who is also the rector of a newly established private university in Novi Pazar, said: "Individual political parties are showing their weakness and incompetence. In their bid to be a political factor, they are denouncing others. The truth is that the Islamic community is not a political force here. The political parties and the state have the ambition to control the Islamic community.

EU and UN officials recently visited Sandzak on fact-finding missions and made a point of speaking to Muric, Zukorlic, and other politicians and community leaders.

Muric's SZS on several occasions last summer blocked the main roads on the Serbian-Montenegrin boundary to protest what it perceives as an attempt by the commission drawing up the constitutional charter to split Sandzak once and for all between the two republics when Yugoslavia is replaced by Serbia-Montenegro. SZS wants Sandzak to become a single "autonomous territorial and political unit within a common state," arguing that a split would harm Bosniak interests.

A Sandzak member of the commission for drawing up the constitutional charter recently quit the body in protest. Esad Dzudzevic, a federal lawmaker and leading member of another local party, the Sulejman Ugljanin List for Sandzak, said he quit because he was unable to ensure that the Sandzak region would exist on both sides of the boundary between Montenegro and Serbia in a new post-Yugoslav state.

When former Yugoslavia conducted its last census in 1991, Sandzak had a population of 420,000 people, of whom 278,000 were living in Serbia and 162,000 in Montenegro. Some 54 percent of Sandzak's inhabitants were Bosniaks. However, the steady emigration of Sandzak Bosniaks to Bosnia, Western Europe, and the United States is likely to have left them a minority in Sandzak, a suspicion supported by the strong showing of Serbian nationalist parties in the recent presidential elections in Serbia. Nevertheless, in Novi Pazar and some other communities, Bosniaks still form a clear majority.

Serbia conducted a census in April but has released very little data so far and nothing on the ethnic composition at either the state or municipal levels. Bosniak politicians made a concerted effort to persuade Muslims to declare themselves Bosniaks but conceded that while they believe they succeeded in the Serbian part of Sandzak, they have a much more difficult task in Montenegro.

Ethnic identity among Montenegro's formerly ethnic Muslims is more complicated due to the presence of Serbian-speaking assimilated Albanians around Plav, Gusinje, and Bar. Many of them prefer to call themselves either Muslims or Illyrian Slavs of Muslim belief, rather than Bosniaks.

Montenegro is due to hold a census next year. The Islamic community in Sandzak also organized a census of adult Muslim believers this year but does not intend to make its findings public.

The coordinator of the Novi Pazar-based nongovernmental organization the Club for Civic Society, Aida Corovic, said nothing in Sandzak society has tangibly improved since the fall of the Milosevic regime because, she alleged, neither the Serbian authorities nor the international community are really interested in building a civil society. As a result, Corovic said, any attempt at change tends to be window dressing without substantial impact. "As we say, 'the further south one goes, the sadder it gets.' In comparison with Vojvodina [in Serbia's north], which traditionally has had strong civic institutions, Sandzak is devoid of anything that we can call a civil society, especially in this process of transition in which a little cash flows into a very primitive world and unfortunately dictates the direction we are heading," Corovic said.

Sandzak was very much a victim of the side effects of wars in neighboring Bosnia (1992-95) and Kosovo (1998-99) through human rights violations by the police, the massive presence of security forces, weapons trafficking, and the waves of refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo.

Former Sandzak Bosniak opposition politician, Rasim Ljajic, has been Yugoslav minister for national and ethnic communities for the past two years. He said the legacy of conflict in the region over the last 11 years has helped feed a renewed rise in nationalism. "[Popular frustration with transition] provides very good ground for the development of various sorts of political ideas. In a time of crisis, people very easily accept these black-and-white messages. This combination of national romanticism and social demagogy has found fertile ground and has attracted the support of a significant share of the voters in Serbia," Ljajic said.

But as the nationalities minister puts it: "Sandzak cannot be anyone's ghetto: It's not in the interest of the people who live there. We need to have an open border with the other states in the region."

Recent incidents have included clashes between Bosniaks and Serbs in Novi Pazar, Sandzak's administrative center, on 8 and 9 September, when Yugoslavia won the gold medal in the World Basketball Championship. The district council alleged the unrest was "coordinated by extremists from the local police" acting in concert with outsiders -- "men who arrived in hundreds of cars with license plates from Kraljevo [in central Serbia] and [North] Mitrovica" in Kosovo. Some 200 Serbs subsequently clashed with about 800 Bosniaks in the center of Novi Pazar, erecting barricades and throwing stones.

Corovic noted the clashes took on historic overtones, with references to Sandzak's past as a district of Ottoman Turkish Bosnia. "A world volleyball championship and a basketball championship were held recently. The local Bosniak community supported the Serbs' opponents -- in one case it was Turkey. The games split the nation. Bosniaks were waving Turkish flags while Serbs were shouting, 'We're going to slit the Turks' throats.' The Bosniaks shouted back: 'Serbs get out. This is Turkey!' These things could have provoked serious conflict, but luckily nothing happened. One disturbing fact is that Serbs came here from North Mitrovica, including bridge watchers and, unfortunately, a number of policemen. It's a real problem that our police and soldiers are passionate nationalists and were provoking conflict," Corovic said.

Then in early November, unknown assailants repeatedly stoned a "mobile cultural container" in Novi Pazar set up by the OSCE in a bid to promote multiethnic tolerance and coexistence among young people.

Corovic said that while relations among the inhabitants of Novi Pazar are "traditionally very correct, though not always good," some people on both sides, Bosniaks and Serbs, are interested in promoting conflict. As she put it, "these are especially people who for years profited from the state of war in neighboring Bosnia and Kosovo."

"Unfortunately, the political elite continues to promote conflict," she said. "The situation in Novi Pazar shows that when politicians want to, they can provoke conflicts. Put 10 fools on one side and 10 fools on the other side, and you have a clash that makes it very difficult to react rationally."

Another problem encountered by Sandzak Bosniaks are beatings in Kosovo by the Serbian bridge watchers in North Mitrovica when Sandzak residents try to cross the Ibar River to do business with the Albanian majority in the south. The bridge watchers include plainclothes Serbian police.

Yugoslav National and Ethnic Communities Minister Ljajic said: "I'd call on all those who in some way have been discriminated against, such as in the concrete case of truck drivers in Sandzak who transport goods to Kosovo -- I know of several such cases. We reacted in concrete cases, but we have to know the precise details so that we can respond quickly and suitably. The problem is that many people don't want to report cases out of fear that the problem could escalate still further."

Ljajic noted that just in Novi Pazar, there are some 3,000 truck drivers who transport goods and work on routes linking Kosovo with other parts of Serbia.

In contrast to Corovic's opinion that little has changed since the fall of Milosevic, Ljajic, as a member of the post-Milosevic government, took a more upbeat view. "Things have changed so much for the simple reason that there is no more fear, no repression, and no one is afraid to be politically involved any longer. No one will punish you for your political behavior, your political attitudes, and this is an enormous change. We don't have repression, house arrests, as under the Milosevic regime. We have freedom of movement, which is so important for the Sandzak region, [especially] for a large number of businesspeople," Ljajic said.

Ljajic said Sandzak's justice system has also begun improving, but he conceded that the region's civil service, above all the police, has what he terms "a weak ethnic structure," that is, they are overwhelmingly monoethnic Serbs. Ljajic said change through integration will neither be easy nor quick. He said these changes should be undertaken while taking into account the ethnic makeup of the population but without putting ethnic identity before professional qualifications.

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