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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Balkans > Serbia > Serbia's Sandzak: Still Forgotten

Serbia's Sandzak: Still Forgotten

Europe Report N°162 8 Apr 2005


Whenever Balkan politicians discuss Kosovo's future status they warn of a "domino effect". One area frequently mentioned as vulnerable and a possible flashpoint of new violence is Serbia's Sandzak, an ethnically-mixed Muslim-Slav (Bosniak) majority region sandwiched between Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia. Its economy is underdeveloped and far poorer than many other regions in Serbia, partly because it was an Ottoman backwater until 1912, partly due to deliberate neglect by Serbian authorities between the world wars and under Milosevic. Belgrade should act against discrimination and otherwise show both Serbs and Bosniaks it is sensitive to their concerns in order to keep the region peaceful, as it presently is, but Sandzak's problems are mostly the same as those of the rest of Serbia and require national solutions.

Under the Milosevic regime, official state terror against the Bosniaks included ethnic cleansing of entire villages, kidnappings, murders, arbitrary arrests, beatings and dismissal from jobs. These actions increased tensions in Sandzak, and the successor Serbian governments have addressed them either half-heartedly or not at all. Given the recent history of Serbian behaviour, many Bosniaks fear for their welfare and existence, and even otherwise minor grievances often take on ethnic overtones.

Nevertheless, since Milosevic's ouster some halting and partial steps to integrate the Muslims into the Serbian political mainstream and treat them as equal citizens have been undertaken. Progress is slow -- it may take a generation for the way Serbia views its minorities truly to change -- but it is occurring. While Serbia is learning how to treat its Muslims without discrimination, the Bosniaks must make extra efforts to protect Serb rights in those areas where they form a majority and are acquiring political power.

The atmosphere in Sandzak is tense but peaceful. There are no indications of armed resistance groups or paramilitary formations among the Bosniaks, nor do there appear to be any fringe political elements capable or desirous of mobilising popular opinion to their cause. There does not appear to be a desire for interethnic conflict among the leading Bosniak political parties. The overwhelming majority of Bosniaks do not seek independence from Serbia, nor do they wish to join Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Provided the Serbian government in Belgrade uses wisdom and good judgement in dealing with the region's problems and reins in nationalist forces that could foment trouble, the potential for ethnically-based violence or conflict is relatively small, and there should be no reason for it to increase, even in the event Kosovo becomes independent. Yet, in many ways the current government is deaf to the region's problems and continues to discriminate in both overt and subtle fashion against the majority Bosniak population.

A number of forces on both sides still attempt to destabilise Sandzak through their actions. These include extremist elements within the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Wahhabi movement, the police, state security (BIA) and army security, and nationalist forces associated with the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the Bosniak Party for Democratic Action (SDA). All seem to have a vested interest in keeping ethnic tensions at a high level.

The Orthodox Church has launched an aggressive campaign aimed at reasserting Serbian presence in the region. Simultaneously the Bosniaks are asserting their sense of national identity: Islam and linguistic issues play a prominent part in this renaissance. The Bosniak National Council is taking actions which could create ethnic apartheid and alienate Serbs. Also on the Bosniak side, there are some small yet potentially troubling radical Wahhabi elements, and indications that some Bosniaks are beginning to discriminate against the Serb minority.

Sandzak suffers from significant economic decline and ongoing loss of population. It also has all the problems endemic to Serbia as a whole: organised crime, corruption, dysfunctional state structures, and official incompetence. Some of these could be resolved if Serbia would act to end discrimination and make its minorities feel that they have a place in the country. Many others will be resolved only when Belgrade decides to take decisive action to reform the judiciary, police and economy on the national level and to decentralise. But Sandzak can and should remain peaceful provided both Serbs and Bosniaks keep a grip on their nationalist elements and make a good faith effort to find common ground.


To the Government of Serbia:

1.  Attack discrimination against Bosniaks on all levels, by amending laws as well as by careful review of employment practices in public institutions and enterprises, and by providing equality of access to government services.

2.  Enforce the rule of law, first and foremost by creating a secure environment in Priboj municipality that will permit refugees to return to their homes, including by bringing to justice individuals guilty of murder, arson and ethnic cleansing during the violence of the 1990s, and by taking appropriate actions against police officers charged with criminal activities, including brutality and murder.

3.  Rein in Serbian nationalist forces that could stir up trouble in the region, whether they are associated with political parties, the Serbian Orthodox Church, or state security services.

To Sandzak's Bosniak Community:

4.  Reduce tensions in the region by re-examining the insistence on teaching "Bosnian language" in the public school system and otherwise exercising care not to take actions that could make the Serb residents of Sandzak feel they are a threatened minority in their own country.

To Sandzak's Religious Leaders:

5.  The Islamic Community and the Serbian Orthodox Church should discourage hate speech by clerics and engage in increased dialogue with each other to reduce tensions among their adherents.

Belgrade/Brussels, 8 April 2005

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