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Yugoslavia: Sandzak's Bosniaks Search For Identity (Part 2)

  • Jolyon Naegele

Sandzak is a restive, multiethnic mountainous region straddling Serbia's mountainous border with Montenegro and wedged between Bosnia and Kosovo. Sandzak managed to escape the five wars over the past 11 years elsewhere in ex-Yugoslavia. In this second of a two-part series on the region, RFE/RL examines how questions of ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity shape Sandzak and its relations with Sarajevo and Belgrade.

Novi Pazar, Serbia; 29 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- What immediately strikes the visitor to Sandzak's administrative capital Novi Pazar are its apparent similarities with Kosovo. Novi Pazar's bustling street life and people's faces and behavior are all strongly reminiscent of Kosovo just over the hills to the southeast, while also bearing similarities to Bosnia to the west. Folk music in this corner of the Balkans, even the jazzed-up variety, has a variety of influences, including Slavic, Vlach, and Albanian.

Local social scientists point to the Illyrian roots of Sandzak's indigenous Bosniak population for an explanation, noting that the local population more than a millennium ago adopted a Slavic dialect while those to the south developed an Illyrian-related tongue, Albanian. In comparing Sandzak's Bosniaks with Kosovar Albanians, Novi Pazar sociologist Aida Corovic, who serves as the coordinator of the local NGO Club for Civic Society, said, "We are all Illyrians and genetically we're probably all the same."

When Ottoman Turkey seized the western Balkans in the late 14th century and subsequently built up Bosnia as a giant arrowhead-shaped protrusion pointed at the heart of Europe, this mountainous region, formerly known as Raska, the cradle of Serbian statehood, became the rear base for Turkish Bosnia and a commercial crossroads for merchants from all over the western Balkans. Commercially, little has changed in the six centuries that have followed.

Arms and other contraband flowed out of and across Sandzak during the five wars of the last 11 years -- and yet miraculously, Sandzak itself escaped armed conflict.

Tobacco and sugar -- as well as drugs -- are currently the chief articles of contraband. The district police chief, Suad Blic, says tobacco and sugar are smuggled by horse and donkey over mountain paths. He says the police have had only limited success in catching the smugglers.

But aside from smuggling, the other big issue in Sandzak is ethnic identity. The region's Serbian and Bosniak populations are fairly evenly divided. Six years ago, Sandzak's Muslim political parties and associations agreed to a 1993 decision by Muslim intellectuals in Sarajevo to call the indigenous Muslim people of the region Bosniaks. That decision has been generally accepted in the Serbian portion of Sandzak, but only as far as ethnic identity is concerned. Language is a different matter.

The codified "Bosnian language" -- a dialect of what used to be known as Serbo-Croatian -- has not caught on in Sandzak despite being promoted by Sarajevo. Bosniak residents and officials in Novi Pazar are more likely to refer to their mother tongue as simply "nas jezik" (our language) or "Serbian," even though the local accent and Turkish-influenced vocabulary have far more in common with the tongue of Bosniaks in eastern Bosnia than with the way people speak in central and northern Serbia.

Yugoslav Minister for National and Ethnic Communities Rasim Ljajic is a former Sandzak Bosniak activist. He is dismissive of attempts by authorities in Sarajevo to influence the language issue in Sandzak. "[The Bosnian-language issue] has unfortunately been politicized above all by the Party of Democratic Action [the ruling Bosniak party in Bosnia], which has been trying to score political points by compromising every idea, every political demand coming out of Sandzak. It's an arrogant way to deal with the current political situation. We have to find a modus vivendi with the Serbian community in Sandzak and establish a suitable relationship with the state in which we live [Yugoslavia]. And we have to remember that we [Bosniaks] only make up about 2.5 percent of Kosovo's population."

Similarly problematic is the term used for Sandzak's Bosniak inhabitants.

Sociologist Aida Corovic said: "A large number of Muslims use the term 'Bosniak' because this term has been in use for a very long time -- in practice by Muslims from Sandzak, Bosnia, and Macedonia, who before and during World War II called themselves Bosniaks. Today we have Bosniak enclaves in Turkey and Kosovo, where for example you have a Bosniak neighborhood ["mahala," in North Mitrovica]. Those aren't people who are from Bosnia. They are Muslims who came from Sandzak, migrating before World War II. They called themselves Bosniaks already before World War I, though the term fell into disuse between the wars."

Using the Titoist term "Muslim" for Bosniaks is viewed by many Bosniaks in Bosnia and Yugoslavia as problematic since it denotes both one's religious belief and national identity. Bosnia's Bosniaks resolved the issue for themselves, establishing a Bosniak identity and a Bosnian language that is Serbo-Croatian with the addition of a variety of words of Turkish origin, local idioms, and the long, drawn-out nasal form of expression common to much of Bosnia and Sandzak.

Ljajic fully supports the use of the term "Bosniak" for Sandzak's Muslim Slavs as a "completely precise definition." "We belong to the Bosnian ethnic group with all the ethnic, cultural, and other characteristics. We intend to develop these peculiarities further together with the other ethnic cultures with which we live. While belonging to this group we also belong to the community of Serbia and Montenegro -- today's Yugoslavia. Our future, economically and in every other way, is linked to this region. We Bosniaks of Sandzak have no inclinations toward any other state territory or the mother state."

Corovic, however, said Bosniak identity is still in the formative stage. "Unfortunately, the formation of Muslims or Bosniaks as a nation is a historic process that could take another 50 or 100 years. But it was interrupted about halfway and Sandzak's Bosniaks were left out, being neither here nor there. This requires a compromise solution both on the part of politicians in Serbia as well as those in Bosnia. This is quite a delicate question, and probably Bosnian authorities in Bosnia are afraid of some sort of separatism or annexation of Sandzak. And again, on the Serbian side, unfortunately, I think they are excessively argumentative over these processes concerning recognition of minority rights despite the advice of ministries and the existence of laws. Although there has been plenty of talk, there has been very little change in terms of substance."

Minister Ljajic is critical of the lack of cooperation between Sandzak and Bosnia in recent years, accusing the Bosniak authorities in Sarajevo of failing to show any particular interest in Sandzak. Diplomatic relations between Bosnia and Yugoslavia were reestablished less than two years ago.

Sarajevo University political scientist Gojo Sekulic, a native of Montenegro, said the rivalries and jealousy that mark relations between Sarajevo and Novi Pazar are unlikely to dissipate. "I think the issue of Bosnia-Herzegovina's relations with Sandzak and its Bosniaks -- who have greater autonomy in Sandzak than [Bosniaks] do [elsewhere] in Serbia or Montenegro -- will be an issue of power for the population and politicians to discuss for years to come. I don't believe in any scenarios of this being a new tinderbox for renewed violence. I rule out that possibility [for now]. But in the long term, Bosnia's interest in Sandzak's Bosniaks could either further split Bosnia-Herzegovina from Yugoslavia or else bring Bosniaks closer together in the interest of Bosnian Bosniaks and Bosniaks in Sandzak."

Thus, Sekulic said, Sarajevo faces a stark choice -- either to develop friendly relations, or to take advantage of political issues to raise tensions and destabilize Sandzak.

National and Ethnic Communities Minister Ljajic would be happy to see Sarajevo let Sandzak develop without meddling and lobbying. "We don't need any special ties with Bosnia. We need normal ties -- communication, economic, and cultural cooperation. But we know where our political and economic future is -- with another state [Yugoslavia]. One thing is the emotions of people whose motherland is Bosnia-Herzegovina and who treat it in one way or another as their mother-state. But reality is something else -- everyday life. We have to be completely transparent."

Ljajic said whatever change is introduced in Sandzak must be done "peacefully with political means, with the understanding that our political ally is in Belgrade -- not in Sarajevo."

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