Saturday, September 18, 2010

Serbia: Bosniaks in Serbia’s Sandzak area raise tensions.

The Turkish flag with the EU flag in the background.

Just as Belgrade gains serious momentum towards EU membership, Bosniaks in Serbia’s Sandzak (predominately Muslim) area raise tensions. But while the conflict there claims to be about Bosniak minority rights, in reality it’s about internal politics and the struggle for power, Igor Jovanovic writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Igor Jovanovic in Belgrade for ISN Security Watch

When the Turkish national basketball team beat Serbia in the World Championship semifinal on 11 September, hundreds of young people took to the streets of Novi Pazar, a town in southwestern Serbia with a majority Bosniak population, carrying Turkish flags and chanting: “Sandzak [the name of the old Turkish region that spans territory in Serbia and Montenegro] is not Serbia” and “This is Turkey.” Although just a few hundred young people came out onto the streets of Novi Pazar, the event showed that the Belgrade authorities have reason to be concerned by the events in the region.

What started as a struggle for dominance between rival Bosniak factions in the region could easily escalate into a crisis that may involve the EU. Namely, one of the sides in the inter-Bosniak conflict, the Islamic Community in Serbia, led by chief mufti Muamer Zukorlic, has already urged the EU to send international monitors to Sandzak to prove, as they put it, that religious and ethnic discrimination against the Bosniak minority is at work in the region.

Until last year, the Sandzak municipalities were overshadowed by the political rivalry between Rasim Ljajic’s Sandzak Democratic Party and Sulejman Ugljanin’s Party of Democratic Action. Although both are cabinet ministers, Ljajic and Ugljanin’s supporters often engaged even in physical clashes for the sake of dominance in Sandzak. The conflict peaked in the September 2006 local election, when a candidate of Ugljanin’s party was murdered at a polling station. The Serbian government had never gotten publicly involved in the conflict and Ljajic and Ugljanin last year reached agreement on resolving disputes in a peaceful manner, working in the interest of Sandzak and attracting foreign investment.

Matters deteriorated additionally in February 2009, when a rift appeared in the Islamic Community, splitting it into two factions - one led by mufti Zukorlic, which recognizes the supreme authority of the reis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the other - headed by reis Adem Zilkic, which claims that the Muslims in Serbia should not fall under Bosnian authority, but should rather have their own administrative bodies.

Zukorlic accused the Belgrade authorities of favoring the rival faction, while the Ministry of Religion briefly stated that it could not arbitrate the dispute between the two communities and called on the Muslims to find their own way out of this situation. But instead of a solution, supporters of the two communities went deeper into conflict and fighting for control of mosques in Sandzak.

This June saw the holding of an election for the Bosniak National Council, a non-political body with jurisdiction in the field of minority rights. Apart from the tickets practically backed by Ugljanin and Ljajic, a novelty was the ticket headed by mufti Zukorlic. Thanks to his statements on the endangerment of Bosniak rights in Serbia and criticism of rival forces and their alleged betrayal of Bosniak interests for the sake of a position in Belgrade, the mufti won 17 out of the 35 council seats.

But no other leader wanted to form a coalition with the mufti, which led to problems in forming the council. It seemed as though a way out of the stalemate was found when two representatives from Ljajic’s ticket switched over to Zukorlic’s camp, but the Human and Minority Rights Ministry then changed the rules for convening the Bosniak council and announced that could not be done without a two-thirds majority.

The shifting nature of the conflict

From that moment on, the conflict within Bosniak circles turned into Zukorlic’s conflict with the Belgrade authorities, in which the mufti claims that the national and religious rights of Bosniaks in Serbia are in jeopardy.

Zukorlic’s supporters and police clashed at a protest rally organized by the Islamic Community in Serbia on 4 September over claims that the Novi Pazar municipal administration had illegally stripped the community of a piece of land. Four police officers were injured in the ensuing riots.

Immediately after the incident, Zukorlic called on EU Foreign Security Policy High Representative Catherine Ashton to send monitors to Sandzak. Soon afterwards, Zukorlic also called for autonomy for Sandzak. In an interview with the Montenegrin daily Vijesti, the mufti said Sandzak’s autonomy would be “an inevitable social process,” adding that “the matter should be discussed on time” for the sake of the stability of Serbia and Montenegro.

That demand, however, was met with negative statements in the Bosniak community in Serbia and Montenegro. Rasim Ljajic’s close aide Meho Omerovic told ISN Security Watch that the demands for autonomy were “mufti Zukorlic’s dangerous dreams,” adding that foreign monitors in Sandzak would not see discrimination against Bosniaks, but rather merely “the fixation and desire for power of the leader of the Islamic Community in Serbia.”

At the same time, head of the Matica Muslimanska organization in Montenegro Avdul Kurpejovic said that Zukorlic was “an Islamic extremist.”

“Sandzak does not exist as a political and territorial unit, or as a geographic entity, but is in fact a creation of the Ottoman Empire that vanished along with the empire,” Kurpejovic told the Montenegrin media.

However, mufti Zukorlic’s spokesman Samir Tandir told ISN Security Watch that this was not a nationalist project, but rather the necessity of additionally protecting Bosniak rights. “The autonomy we are seeking is in tune with European regionalization standards. I fear that, if we do not get that status, the only solution will be the arrival of foreign monitors in Sandzak,” Tandir said.

In response to the remark that other Bosniak parties are dismissing his demands and taking part in the Serbian government, Tandir said that Ljajic and Ugljanin had forgotten about Bosniak rights for the sake of “positions in Belgrade” and could no longer represent the Bosniak community.

Belgrade Faculty of Security professor Zoran Dragisic told the Belgrade media that the situation in Sandzak and the conflict between the two Islamic communities was a serious problem for the state and pointed out that the government must not ignore the need to solve that problem.

"That, in any case, is a serious problem, more so since Muslims are not an insignificant part of the population. It will take a great deal of stately wisdom to solve the problem,” Dragisic said.

Novi Pazar political analyst Isak Slezovic shares that opinion and says there is “too much vanity in Sandzak that prevents the Bosniak politicians from reaching a compromise on their own. I do not think Sandzak can become a regional problem, but I do believe we will see more local incidents. That is why the state should get involved in the whole thing,” Slezovic told ISN Security Watch.

Tandir says that, for the time being, mufti Zukorlic has not received an invitation for talks with Belgrade officials, but points out that “informal contacts have been established,” about which he cannot be more specific at the moment. “I hope that talks with state officials will be held soon, because they are the ones who should calm tensions in Sandzak. Otherwise, I am afraid there will be more incidents,” Tandir said.

Since the worsening of the situation in Sandzak, the opposition Democratic Party of Serbia - led by former prime minister Vojislav Kostunica - has urged the government to immediately start resolving the issue, before Sandzak turns into a new Kosovo problem.

The government has made no statements yet regarding the events in Sandzak. Only Labor Minister Rasim Ljajic said the region should not be compared with the Kosovo crisis. “The Kosovo crisis cannot repeat in Sandzak, because there is no potential for that there,” Ljajic told Serbian state TV RTS. He accused Zukorlic of “being happy with any kind of confrontation,” but added that “under the given circumstances, a moderate and restrained policy is the only sort that can yield results in the long term.”

However, the fact that restraint is one of the least used terms in the Balkans does not run in Ljajic’s favor. If that happens in Sandzak, the Belgrade authorities will have another security challenge in the region, which will only increase with the further delay of Belgrade’s European integration.

Igor Jovanovic is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Serbia and Kosovo. He is based in Belgrade.