Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Border Threatens Bosniak Community

If Montenegro becomes independent, an international frontier will run through the middle of Sandzak, cutting the Bosniak community into two
By Amela Bajrovic

Tahir Musina, a Bosniak from the village of Draga, crosses the border between Serbia and Montenegro each day as part of his work as a driver in Tutin, a town 15 kilometres away.


Though Serbia and Montenegro are parts of one state, joined in a weak “state union”, the existence of a customs barrier between the two republics offers a foretaste of what may happen if, as many predict, the republics separate next year and become independent states.


The border checkpoints that annoy Tahir Musina appeared some ten years ago, when both republics established unofficial customs controls.


“I have to leave home an hour earlier to get to work, as I never know what mood will the police will be in,” Musina complained.


“Sometimes I pass straight through but it can drag on for half an hour. There's no understanding for me at work if I'm late, so the introduction of this border control makes me feel bitter. It makes no sense to divide the same people, living in the same state.”


Division, however, is on the cards, filling Bosniaks like Musina with apprehension for the future, as a relatively small community separated by a new international frontier.


The frontier between the two republics cuts right through the Sandzak, as Bosniaks call the isolated and hilly region that straddles the south-west of Serbia and the north-east of Montenegro.


And while a narrow majority of Montenegrins supports independence for their small, coastal republic, parties representing Bosniaks on the Serbian side of Sandzak area strongly oppose the campaign.


Sulejman Ugljanin, chair of the Bosniak National Council in Serbia and Montenegro, BNVSCG, says the voice of Sandzak Bosniaks must be heard in the debate on Montenegrin independence.


“The creation of two independent states will have a detrimental effect on Bosniaks, so their opinion should be taken into account,” Ugljanin, who sees the long-term solution in what he calls “a Europe without borders”, told IWPR.


The area that Bosniaks call Sandzak, (from the Turkish term for “administrative area” or district - Serbs call it Raska), comprises 11 municipalities.


Six belong to Serbia, namely, Novi Pazar, Tutin, Sjenica, Nova Varos, Prijepolje and Priboj. Five others, Rozaje, Berane, Plav, Bijelo Polje and Pljevlja, belong to Montenegro.


To complicate matters, Bosniaks form the majority in only three of the six Serbian municipalities, Novi Pazar, Sjenica and Tutin and two in Montenegro, Rozaje and Plav.


While Bosniaks in Novi Pazar have no interest in being separated from their kith and kin in Rozaje, Montenegro’s prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, is forging ahead with his decade-old project to lead an independent Montenegrin state, which will be recognised by the international community.


And while Serbia’s premier, Vojislav Kostunica, opposes this plan, it is the citizens living along the border between the two republics who are most anxious for the future - merchants and traders above all.


Medzid Fakic, owner of the Elan furniture plant in Tutin, Serbia, said his business will suffer if the existing border became an international frontier.


“Our main market is in Montenegro, due to its proximity,” he told Beta news agency. “It’s better to transport goods 200 km [to Montenegro] than 600 [to Belgrade],” he added.


Irfan Sarenkapic, head of the Sandzak Development Agency, agreed, saying a new frontier may even cause an economic crisis in the border regions.


“Most private entrepreneurs in this region don’t want separation of the two republics,” he said.


“They will need new documentation and paperwork for imports or exports and this will inevitably increase prices, generating a crisis.”


Azem Hajdarevic, vice-president of the Party for Sandzak and the mayor of Novi Pazar, told IWPR that Sandzak would become a hot spot if the state union were to disintegrate.


“It is already a hot spot in the making,” he said, adding that separation “could precipitate unwelcome chain of events”.


However, it is not a simple case of Bosniaks on both sides of the republic border wanting to remain together in one state.


As Rasim Lajic, Serbia and Montenegro minister for minorities and chairman of the Sandzak Democratic Party, SDP, points out that Bosniaks in Serbia and those in Montenegro hold diametrically opposing views.


“Bosniaks in Serbia favour preserving the joint state, to maintain the integrity of the region,” he said, “but in Montenegro over 90 per cent of Bosniaks favour an independent Montenegro.”


The reasons for this are complicated. One factor is that Bosniaks in Montenegro look to the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, not to Novi Pazar, as their capital. Another factor is that ethnic minorities tend to see Montenegro as a more tolerant political environment than Serbia.


Lajic counsels that in view of the fact that a referendum on independence will probably be held in Montenegro by 2006, Bosniaks on both sides of the border need to prepare for Montenegro’s eventual independence.


“The best option for us would be to reach a solution that will allow the free flow of people, goods and capital,” Ljajic said.


Mevlud Dudic, vice-president of the Sandzak Islamic Community and head of Novi Pazar’s Medresa (religious school), said a new partition of Sandzak would inflict a great injustice on local Bosniaks.


“This people have already experienced injustice at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, when Sandzak was divided between Serbia and Montenegro,” he recalled. “A new division would bring about the region’s collapse. I hope modern Europe will not allow this.”


Dudic said his teachers already had problems crossing what he called the existing “semi-border”, dividing Novi Pazar from Rozaje. Vans loaded with teaching material were often turned back at the frontier, for example.


“We have enormous problems with this, so I can only imagine what will happen if there is a real ‘tight’ border,” he told IWPR.


In the meantime, Bosniaks on both sides of the border are having to get used to the routine of inspections and controls at the hands of customs officials.


Dzafer Muric, who built his house in what he calls “the good old days”, is also getting used to the fact that his home may soon sit right on an international frontier. “I don't want even to think about the referendum,” he said.


Amela Bajrovic took part in an IWPR journalism training programme in Novi Pazar funded by the OSCE in Belgrade.


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