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Balkan Report: April 23, 2004

23 April 2004, Volume 8, Number 16

The next issue of "RFE/RL Balkan Report" will appear on 21 May.

LEADER OF BOSNIA'S ISLAMIC COMMUNITY SPEAKS OUT. Prior to the 1992-95 Bosnian war, about 44 percent of the roughly 4.5 million people in that country were Slavs of Islamic heritage, generally known in the West as Bosnian Muslims. They are to all intents and purposes linguistically and ethnically identical to their Serbian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Croat neighbors, with whom intermarriages and religious crossovers are no rarity.

Indeed, in some Bosnian extended families, it is possible to find members of each of the three religious groups. Traditionally, some rich and powerful families deliberately arranged that members of each of the three religious groups were included in their ranks in order to guarantee the family's position regardless of who was in power.

Under communism, Islam and other religions were kept under a tight watch. Former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and many of his friends were suspected of fundamentalist tendencies and were no strangers to the communists' prisons.

But some prominent Muslims, including clerics, were often used by Belgrade for foreign policy purposes to promote good relations with the Arab world and Muslim countries farther afield, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Following the collapse of communism, some politically compromised prominent clerics were edged into the background. The all-Yugoslav Islamic Community organization broke up along the lines of the new national borders.

At that time, Mustafa Ceric became the reisu-l-ulema, or leader, of Bosnia's Islamic Community. He was born in 1950 and studied theology and philosophy in Cairo, taking his doctorate in Chicago. He has sought to portray Bosnian Islam as a tolerant, European Islam, open to both East and West, while remaining very clear about its beliefs. Nonetheless, many secular Bosnian citizens of all backgrounds, as well as religious Serbs and Croats, remain deeply suspicious of him, saying that he has quietly worked to put an Islamic religious stamp on Bosnia.

In any event, Ceric's public statements generally lack the anti-Western bias that some other prominent Islamic leaders from former Yugoslavia still retain from the communist period. At the same time, he has often noted that Bosnian Muslims acquired their Islam from the Ottoman Empire and not from Arabia, which places them in a different tradition from Islamic groups with their roots directly in Arabia. Ceric's frequent public statements can be found in the biweekly "Preporod" (Rebirth), which the Islamic Community publishes in Sarajevo, and on its website ( In 2002, the Islamic Community's Educational Society put out a collection of his public remarks in a book entitled "Faith, Nation, and Homeland: Sermons, Talks and Interviews" (Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, "Vjera, narod, i domovina. Hutbe, govori, i intervjui" [Sarajevo: Udruzenje ilmijje Islamske zajednice u BiH] 2002).

On 16 April, Ceric gave an interview to veteran German-language Balkan correspondent Erich Rathfelder for Berlin's "die tageszeitung," in which Ceric addressed some highly topical issues. He began by rejecting the idea of a "clash of civilizations," saying that the world is moving towards freedom and democratic states based on the rule of law. "The world can thank Western civilization and especially Europe for this trend," he argued. If there is a crisis, he continued, it is because the Western world is not willing to share its values with others.

In that context, he argued that "there is probably no Muslim in the world who does not strive in principle for freedom." If the Taliban appear to represent different values, it is because they represent a tribal society, not because they are Muslims, he added.

But Ceric sees prejudice in Europe toward the Islamic world as a whole. "We Bosnian Muslims are not recognized in Europe as a people. Europe would like to view us as a tribal society" instead.

He denies that there is a specific "Bosnian Islam," but argues that Islam in Bosnia has experienced unique developments in the course of the past 500 years. Ceric calls the result "an Islam that threatens nobody and is directed neither against other peoples nor against its own society. We are for tolerance and civilized behavior and reject the mentality of tribal society."

Ceric notes that Jews and Christians also have their religious roots in the Middle East, adding that it should come as no surprise that Muslims, too, honor their own ties to that part of the world. "But we live in Europe, and I as a European Muslim would like to make my contribution to European civilization and be recognized accordingly."

When Rathfelder asked him about the alleged wartime influx of Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, Ceric responded that there are many more dangerous people from the Middle East in Germany, France, or Britain than in Bosnia.

He noted that postwar Bosnia needs help and is in no position to turn down money from Saudi Arabia, which, in any event, remains an ally of the West. He charged that contributions amounting to $120,000 came from unspecified sources in Germany for the reconstruction of a Serbian Orthodox church in Mostar, but only Sweden has given money to help reconstruct the 1,000 mosques Ceric says were destroyed in the war.

But does Bosnian Islam have a particular contribution it can make to Europe? Ceric suggests that the Islamic Community and the institution of the reisu-l-ulema provide form and direction to the Muslim community of Bosnia, and that consequently he is not worried about its future.

What he does worry about is Muslims in Western Europe, who are primarily a diverse mixture of immigrant communities. "The Muslims in Europe must develop their own unified [institution]. This is in Europe's interest. Our religious teachers should be educated in Europe and regard themselves as European Muslims," Ceric says.

And what about the United States, whose military and diplomatic intervention in the Bosnian conflict is often credited with having saved the Muslim side from military defeat and worse? In the 15 October 2003 issue of "Preporod," a front-page editorial entitled "American Friends" quotes Ceric as saying that the Americans are indeed the friends of the Bosnian Muslims, who should make this point clear to their Muslim friends around the world. The Americans remain Bosnia's friends, he adds, even if one would wish that the United States had a different policy in the Middle East.

The editorial points out that the United States came forward with a donation of $1 million to make the proposed Srebrenica memorial center a reality in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August and 22 September 2003). "Preporod" also recalls the hospital visit of former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Izetbegovic in his final days, and quotes former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke as calling indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic "the Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein of Europe." (Patrick Moore)

MACEDONIA'S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS PROVIDE MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS. When Macedonia's voters went to the polls on 14 April to elect a new president, it was clear that none of the candidates would be able to win the necessary majority in the first round. But the second round slated for 28 April may not be able to restore a fully normal political situation, either.

According to the final results of the first round announced by the State Election Commission on 17 April, Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) garnered 42.47 percent of the votes; Sasko Kedev, a lawmaker for the conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), received 34.07 percent; Gezim Ostreni of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) took 14.79 percent; and the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians' (PDSH) candidate, Zudi Xhelili, won 8.67 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, and 16 April 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 and 9 April 2004). Voter turnout was 55.18 percent of all those registered, easily meeting the 50 percent requirement for the election to be valid.

Crvenkovski will thus face Kedev on 28 April. The race could be closer than expected due to Kedev's relatively good results in the first round.

Kedev, who is relatively unknown, seems also to be the first ethnic Macedonian politician to appreciate how important the ethnic Albanian voters will be in the second round. The Albanians make up 23 percent of the total population. Unlike Crvenkovski, who focused on ethnic Macedonian voters in the run-up to the first round, Kedev's campaign managers bought airtime and ad space in Albanian-language media already before the first round.

Some analysts also recall the 1999 elections, when the late Boris Trajkovski (VMRO-DPMNE), who came in second in the first round, subsequently won a convincing second-round victory over Tito Petkovski of the SDSM. At that time, the VMRO-DPMNE managed to induce the PDSH to support Trajkovski. However, Kedev may not have the same good fortune since he has ruled out any deals with the PDSH in exchange for its votes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 2004).

The BDI's candidate, Gezim Ostreni, and its chairman, Ali Ahmeti, have made it clear what they expect from Crvenkovski in return for their support. Ostreni told "Dnevnik" of 17 April that he advised his supporters to vote for Crvenkovski in the second round because the party programs of the BDI and SDSM are very similar.

But Ostreni also said it was time for an ethnic Albanian to become parliamentary speaker. And Ahmeti told the Prishtina daily "Koha Ditore" that Trajkovski's sudden death on 26 February highlighted the need for a vice president. Ahmeti added that the new position must not be assigned to an ethnic Albanian by law, as this would presumably reserve the presidency for an ethnic Macedonian and bar ethnic Albanians from becoming president in the future.

If the BDI officially endorses Crvenkovski and if the opinion polls prove correct, then Crvenkovski is likely to become Macedonia's next president, vacating the prime minister's post as a result. This, however, could lead to a political free-for-all, according to some independent observers, such as Iso Rusi of the Albanian-language weekly "Lobi" or Saso Ordanoski of the monthly "Forum."

For Rusi, Crvenkovski's election as president could lead to confusion in other branches of government. Rusi writes in "Lobi" of 9 April that according to the constitution, a new government must be elected within six weeks after the resignation of the prime minister. If Crvenkovski wins the 28 April ballot, he will resign as prime minister and be sworn in as president by mid-May.

Rusi feels that rivalries among leading SDSM figures and demands by the SDSM's coalition partners could then delay the election of a new prime minister. This would mean that parliament would elect a new prime minister at the last possible moment, that is, at the end of June.

The delay could push back the adoption of important legislation on the decentralization of the state administration; the decentralization law could additionally be delayed by additional local referendums against the government's redistricting plans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 January, and 12 and 20 February 2004). This would eventually lead to a postponement of the local elections slated for this fall, Rusi says.

Ordanoski foresees similar problems stemming primarily from the SDSM's internal divisions. It is still unclear who will be Crvenkovski's successor as prime minister; the most likely candidate is Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski, who is also popular with the international community. And the party must also find a new chairman. Ordanoski warns, moreover, that Crvenkovski is always good for surprises, especially when it comes to nominating people for high office.

And if Crvenkovski is not elected? Ordanoski feels that Crvenkovski has already given hints that he no longer considers himself bound by his earlier statements that he will withdraw from politics if he loses the presidential ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 April 2004). (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

MAKING POLITICAL HAY WITH THE 'ERASED' IN SLOVENIA. Media around the globe expressed alarm after 4 April, when a Slovenian referendum passed with 95 percent of the ballots cast to kill a government-backed bill that would have retroactively reinstated the residency status of thousands of non-Slovenes removed from state records in 1992 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 and 27 February 2004). From Toronto to Taipei, readers were told that racism was growing in Slovenia, where minority rights had been crushed at the polls. Fortunately for Slovenia, that was an overstatement.

The referendum was backed primarily by conservative opposition parties and opposed by the center-left government. Elections to the European Parliament and Slovenian general elections are due later in the year, which helped raise the stakes in the referendum.

In the politically charged run-up to the referendum, the three most often cited objections were that the measure was unconstitutional (by putting human rights to a popular vote), senseless (because the Constitutional Court has ruled that residency rights will have to be restored in any case), and harmful (by promoting intolerance in society). Advocates of these positions ranged from high-profile government figures to activists on the street.

The constitutionality of the referendum was nonetheless assured by its review and approval by the Constitutional Court. Furthermore, the proposition did not ask voters to decide about anyone's human rights -- but only to judge the adequacy of one legislative approach to meet the Constitutional Court ruling requiring residency to be restored.

The objection that the vote was senseless portrayed the conservative opposition as seeking to overturn that ruling aimed at restoring residency. In reality, the opposition objected to the bill's failure to provide for the examination of cases on an individual basis or to limit potential compensation claims. The government's subsequent decision to continue issuing residency decisions directly on an ad hoc basis, rather than draft a new bill, has highlighted its unwillingness to consider opposition proposals, even at the risk of popular disapproval.

Liberal media in Slovenia and abroad widely reported that the result of the referendum signals growing intolerance in Slovenia, and some darkly warned that Slovenia's reputation will suffer just as it is about to enter the EU.

The domestic political establishment's interest in increasing public shame over supposed intolerance in Slovenian society is clear: Slovenes are eager to promote their country as more progressive and modern than others in a region that has been torn by ethnic strife. Raising the specters of xenophobia and racism was an attempt to translate traditional Slovenian tolerance into political capital that would bolster the government's position while demonizing the opposition.

Postreferendum commentary was similarly polarized and thus appeared to describe two different events. A confused last-minute referendum boycott by some in the government (while other government figures urged voters to vote in support of the bill) allowed the coalition to dismiss the otherwise average 31 percent referendum turnout as weak, while the opposition touted the near-unanimity of the rejection as historic.

Misinterpretation of Slovenia's referendum by Western media was widespread. Many news sources stated that non-Slovenes were required to apply for citizenship in 1991 (in fact, non-Slovenes also had the option of applying for permanent residence), or that all ethnic non-Slovenes lost their status (Italians, Hungarians, Roma, and some others living in Slovenia were not affected).

Some media said that the citizenship of non-Slovenes was revoked (they retained Yugoslav citizenship by default), or that they lost their right to residency (the "erased" remained entitled to apply for residency on the same basis as other noncitizens). Other media betrayed grosser misunderstandings, variously asserting that the vote was held on overturning the court ruling, granting rights to ethnic minorities, restoring citizenship, or allowing foreigners to immigrate to Slovenia.

Nor is it possible to equate public distaste for a blanket reinstatement of the residency status of the "erased" -- many of whom became citizens or permanent residents of Slovenia years ago -- with a general prejudice against other ex-Yugoslavs or Bosnian Muslims. If anything, the numbers reveal an official preference for immigration from ex-Yugoslavia.

According to statistics from the Interior Ministry, some 2,000 to 3,000 persons receive Slovenian citizenship annually. Of these, 95 percent or more are applicants from other ex-Yugoslav states, and the majority of these are from Bosnia-Herzegovina (e.g., the 2,748 persons naturalized in 1998 included 2,110 from Bosnia-Herzegovina).

A similar picture is shown by statistics regarding residence permits. Figures published in the weekly "Zurnal" on 16 April show that 89 percent of the 54,000 foreign residents of Slovenia at the close of 2003 were from ex-Yugoslav states, and approximately half of them were from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Rather than being subject to restrictive quotas, other ex-Yugoslavs continue to freely receive residency and citizenship in Slovenia. With an aging demographic profile and low birthrate, Slovenia needs immigration to maintain its population. Bosnians, Serbs, and others are attracted by Slovenia's economic strength -- and in turn they adapt more easily to Slovenia's language and culture than immigrants from more distant lands.

Intolerance aside, it is clear that the referendum and the issues associated with it exposed critical weaknesses in Slovenia's ruling coalition -- with fallout including the exit of the conservative Slovenian People's Party (SLS) and its three ministers from the government on 7 April. Upcoming European Parliament and national elections pose even greater stakes, and both government and opposition politicians can be expected to put their best spin on the ongoing saga of the "erased." (Donald F. Reindl,

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Every time a country appears to be retreating from a difficult situation, encouragement is given to those people who have created the difficulty." -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard, commenting on the new Spanish government's decision to pull its troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. Quoted by Australian television in Sale, Australia, on 19 April.

"Suddenly, our new partner citizens in the EU -- those same people whose deliverance from communism, wrought by their own bravery, we celebrated 14 years ago -- have become potential 'benefit tourists' ('Daily Mail'), agents of 'social upheaval' ('Financial Times'), a 'menace' (the 'Mail' again) to our social services, a horde of gypsies, or a 'flood tide' ('Daily Express') of 'millions of immigrants' (the 'Mail' again). Government talk is not of liberty or union, but of 'habitual residence requirements' and 'employment registration certificates.'" -- Ed Vulliamy in "The Observer," 11 April.

"Are we joining what you already are, or are we joining you in helping to plan what this great adventure -- the new Europe -- will be? There's a lesson here that neither we nor you have learned: what does 'Europe' mean? Does it mean that we are joining you, or that we are all coming together? Our history is one of a people with a sense of political responsibility. So we ask to be treated as people with something to say, not just little people to put in the corner." -- Former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, quoted in ibid.