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Serbia's Sandzak: Still Forgotten
Serbia's Sandzak: Still Forgotten
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 162 / Europe & Central Asia

Serbia's Sandzak: Still Forgotten

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.

Executive Summary

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.

Belgrade/Brussels, 8 April 2005

Serbia's Changing Political Landscape

On 11 July 2004, Boris Tadic was inaugurated as Serbia's first president since December 2002. Voters chose Tadic in the second round of the election, on 27 June, by a vote of 53 per cent over the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Tadic's victory suggests that a slim majority of the electorate wants to see Serbia on a pro-European reform course.

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I. Overview

On 11 July 2004, Boris Tadic was inaugurated as Serbia's first president since December 2002. Voters chose Tadic in the second round of the election, on 27 June, by a vote of 53 per cent over the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS).[fn]In the first round, 47.7 per cent of the electorate voted and 48.7 per cent in the second round. Three previous elections (29 September and 13 October 2002, 8 December 2002, and 16 November 2003) were annulled due to insufficient voter turnout. Subsequent changes in the election law removed the requirement for a 50 per cent voter turnout and made it possible for this election to succeed.Hide Footnote  Tadic's victory suggests that a slim majority of the electorate wants to see Serbia on a pro-European reform course. However, the Radicals' strong showing demonstrates that Serbia's electorate is deeply divided, and a pro-reform course should not be taken for granted, particularly if economic difficulties continue. Most importantly, the top three vote-getters in the first round of the presidential election came from parties that were not part of the government and did not support it in parliament.

Since the election, Tadic has indicated that he will support the government of Premier Vojislav Kostunica, thereby reducing the influence of the Socialist Party (SPS). However, the office of president holds little authority over day-to-day policy-making, and Tadic's election may not necessarily translate into real change for Serbian politics. The election leaves Serbia's minority government highly vulnerable to pressure from the nationalist right as well as the pro-European centre. Upcoming country-wide municipal elections and provincial elections in Vojvodina -- both scheduled for September -- will be seen by the government as a crucial test for possible early parliamentary elections.

Despite Tadic's election, the Serbian government appears reluctant to restart cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia [ICTY]). Rhetoric and ever-increasing international pressure aside, it is uncertain if anyone sought by the ICTY will be arrested or transferred prior to the September elections. Reform legislation has stalled, and relations with minorities in the ethnically mixed Vojvodina province have worsened noticeably and could be subject to further deterioration.

In this presidential election, Serbia's electorate demonstrated increased sophistication and signalled that it is no longer obsessed with the politics of nationalism. The economy dominated the election debate -- neither Kosovo nor the ICTY played a significant part in the campaign rhetoric. Both the first and second rounds of the election signalled broad disenchantment with the transition process and with politics as usual. But the emergence of a new face from the oligarchy -- one-time Milosevic crony Bogoljub Karic -- as an increasingly powerful political force sends a powerful message to Belgrade's self-absorbed political elites of possible populist trends in the future.

Belgrade/Brussels, 22 July 2004