Report / Europe & Central Asia 1 minutes

Sandzak: Calm for Now

The Sandzak is an area within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that borders Serbia and Montenegro.

Executive Summary

The Sandzak is an area within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that borders Serbia and Montenegro. It has a multicultural, multiethnic history and a majority population that is Muslim. Since the rise of Serbian strong-man Slobodan Milosevic to political power the majority Muslims have been the targets of coercion. For the time being, the major issue is Milosevic’s continuing repression of human and political rights. Stating that, however, is not concluding that the area is entirely immune from the effects of a serious and full-blown military crisis.

To date, Belgrade’s policy of oppression has served to pacify the population. While some observers may note this and conclude that the political culture is one of apathy, it appears more accurate to characterise the population as docile. Since 1991, local Muslim residents have been the targets of firebombings, kidnappings, beatings, murders, and torture. Even Yugoslav army forces have served as a tool of intimidation, periodically deploying men and materiel throughout the region to frighten residents. According to some estimates, perhaps as many as 80,000 Muslims have already responded by seeking refuge in western Europe.

In addition to crimes against the person, area residents have in recent years seen their political rights whittled away, with Belgrade pursuing unabashed policies that have resulted in the region’s being placed under Milosevic’s centralised control. Moreover, citizens have seen their livelihoods taken away, as Milosevic has secured state sector job for ethnic Serbs, forcing a number of local Muslims into pirate manufacturing industries where, perhaps even contrary to regime expectations, they have managed to prosper.

As long as Milosevic is preoccupied with events in Kosovo and an imploding domestic economy, he is unlikely to order anything along the lines of a full-scale military action in the Sandzak. Should, however, the Yugoslav dictator survive the current crises, which is by no means a foregone conclusion, he may at some future date decide that yet another bid to stay in power may hinge on the backing of hard-core Serbian nationalists. Thus he may dredge up the bogeyman of a Muslim threat from the Sandzak and react with military force.

For the time being, the international community must monitor human rights abuses in the Sandzak. Ongoing repression might yet lead to serious public support for a nationalist Muslim party which may give Belgrade a pretext for intensifying the clamp down.

Sarajevo, 09 November 1998

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