Serbia’s Sandzak amid bitter Muslim divide
The remote area tucked between Kosovo and Montenegro was once the centre of the Balkans’ black-market textile industry, with factories churning out high-quality replicas of brand-name jeans and shoes to hungry local markets squeezed by sanctions.
But today its main city Novi Pazar is a picture of decline, with many factories standing idle and more than 50 percent of the population estimated at 400,000 to 500,000 unemployed, local officials said.
Teenagers hang around in the city’s main square with little to do. Most are glum about their future prospects, and complain about politicians who promise more than they deliver and “muftis who drive around in BMWs or SUVs”.
“My impression is that everything is at a stand-still,” said a woman in her 40s who gave her name as Azra.
“This is a catastrophe. All most young people think about is going abroad. Some have turned to drugs,” she said.
Much of the economic malaise is put down to the lifting of economic sanctions following the ouster of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, which allowed cheap Chinese and Turkish imports to compete with local products.
In the 1990s as ethnic wars raged in Bosnia and Croatia following the breakup of the old Yugoslav federation, the Sandzak region carved out a profitable niche supplying black-market goods for Serbia and Montenegro, which were under international sanctions for fueling the fighting.
Now, business leaders are pinning their hopes on the European market, with Serbia working to obtain European Union candidate status next year.
“Our principal trump card is that we are in Europe. We can make smaller batches and export quickly,” said Tigrin Kacar, a local businessman.
The economic crisis, however, has fanned internal tensions in the predominantly Muslim Sandzak region — which borders Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 in a move not recognised by Belgrade.
In recent years, a bitter battle has been waged for influence among Sandzak’s Muslim religious community, stoked by two rival muftis. So far incidents have been minor, mainly skirmishes over rival property claims.
On one side of the divide is a group led by Adem Zilkic, which is based in the capital Belgrade and recognised by the Serbian government as the official interlocutor for the country’s Muslims.
But his influence is being undercut by the mufti of Novi Pazar, Muamer Zukorlic, who accuses his rival of kowtowing to Belgrade and who set up a rival organisation in 2007.
Zukorlic recognises the spiritual authority of Mustafa Ceric, the mufti of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which was the center of the former Yugoslavia’s scattered Muslim community before the bloody break-up in the 1990s.
In recent weeks, Zukorlic has called for autonomy for the Sandzak region, saying that the “Bosniaks (Muslims of Slav origin) are the only people of Europe who do not have their own exclusive state.”
“We are asking that Serbia give us a degree of sovereignty, within the framework of constitutional order,” Zukorlic said, adding that this initiative “does not mean ethnic autonomy, but autonomy for a multi-ethnic region,” with a Serb minority.
This is a “test of mutual confidence between the Serb authorities and the Bosniaks” but “Serb authorities are showing no confidence, not granting us the slightest degree of autonomy,” he complained.
The rift between the two Muslim communities — unusual in a region more used to inter-ethnic conflict — is growing and Zukorlic has even invited the European Union to send a monitoring mission to the area. Brussels has not officially responded to the request.
For residents like Azra, the clash is a major concern.
“Relations between Serbs and Muslims are better then among the Muslims themselves,” she said.
Bisera Seceragic of the local branch of the European Movement in Serbia, a non-governmental organisation focused on pushing Serbia closer to the EU, argued that Sandzak’s economic problems were more pressing than the dispute among Muslims.
“We are a region on Serbia’s outskirts on the border with Kosovo,” she said.
“One in two inhabitants lives below the poverty line. One in seven eats in local soup kitchens,” she said.
Semiha Kacar, from a local rights organisation, said the government needed to improve infrastructure and open up the region to attract investors.
“This region has not been treated the same as the other parts of Serbia,” Kacar said.
January 11, 2011