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

Language Battle Divides Schools

Plans to introduce Bosnian language classes in schools have angered Serb nationalists and leave most locals puzzled.
By Alma Rizvanovic

At the Stevan Nemanja primary school in Novi Pazar, Ramiz, a Bosniak pupil in first grade, chatters away to his friends, Bosniaks and Serbs alike, oblivious of the fact that the language he and his fellows pupils use is becoming a hot political issue.

Before the early 1990s, the language that almost everyone used in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia was called Serbo-Croat.

But as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, the newly formed states insisted on their national identity, which meant renaming the language their people spoke.

As a result, Serbs now say they speak Serbian, Croats say they speak Croatian and Bosniaks, or Muslims, use the Bosnian language.

To an outsider they sound virtually the same, but they have shown they have the capacity to spark language wars in areas where ethnic groups overlap.

Such is the case in the Sandzak region of south-west Serbia, where Bosniak politicians and cultural leaders have waged a successful campaign for children to be taught “Bosnian” in primary school.

In Novi Pazar, Bosniaks are the majority group, making up 86 per cent of the population. Serbs come second, while other ethnic groups are smaller.

The city of about 120,000 has been the spiritual and economic centre of the Sandzak region for centuries, where diverse cultures, religions and traditions all meet. But few locals take advantage of this diversity or highlight its richness.

The decision of the Serbian education ministry, therefore, to permit primary school education in Bosnian, has caused an outcry, pitting parties and parents against each other.

Serbia’s education minister, Slobodan Vuksanovic, announced the start of Bosnian classes from February 2005.

Under government requirements, Bosniaks will have to represent at least 15 per cent of the local community before they can demand provision of these classes in school.

But far from settling the language issue, the decision of the Serbian government has only fuelled the debate.

The opposition nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, has already demanded the minister quits over the announcement.

Meanwhile, Professor Sefket Krcic, president of the Bosniak cultural association, Matica Bosnjaka, said he doubted the concession would last.

”No one knows how long this government’s decision will remain in force,” he told IWPR.

“This is particularly so when you recall that the Radical leaders have already demanded the minister’s resignation.”

Even the Bosniak political parties in Sandzak are divided.

Members of the List for Sandzak Coalition, led by Sulejman Ugljanin, which spearheaded the campaign, said they were delighted by the move.

Esad Dzudzevic, a deputy from the coalition in the Serbian parliament, hailed it as a positive step for both the Bosniak community and the Serbian state.

However, the Sandzak Democratic Party, SDP, the strongest Bosniak party in the region, criticised the manner in which the change was introduced and the proposed textbooks for primary schools.

The substance of their complaints is that the textbook, the Bosnian language and the basics of Bosnian culture, is an unprofessional work that fails to draw on expert linguists in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and relies too much on local amateurs.

“Official textbooks from Bosnia should have been used,” said Elijaz Rebronja, the local SDP secretary and a literature teacher in Novi Pazar.

“Most of the language programme should have been taken from these textbooks and only the rest from local writers.

“The way it is, the textbook has been written by people who have published just a few poems.

“This is just about putting up a smokescreen for ordinary people to score some political points.”

Rebronja said the List for Sandzak Coalition had “not taken into account the question of quality and had not thought about the children who are supposed to learn Bosnian from those textbooks”.

To complicate the issue, although SRS has condemned the plan for Bosnian classes in the Serbian parliament, the local branch of the Radicals in Novi Pazar is more conciliatory.

“If Muslims or Bosniaks reach a consensus that their mother tongue should be Bosnian, we have no objections,” Milan Veselinovic, head of the local SRS branch, told IWPR. “I don’t want anyone to impose anything by force.”

The Radicals say the real aim of the campaign for Bosnian classes is to remind people that they differ from Serbs, when it might be more useful to remind them that they have lived together in the region for centuries.

“The truth is that they are one people with two religions and that cannot be wiped out overnight,” Veselinovic said. “We should work and live together.”

Most linguists agree that the language battle is, at heart, a largely political affair. They emphasise that this is a single language – Bosnian or Serbian - with the same semantic roots.

But Zehnija Bulic, a writer and one of the first intellectuals to advocate the introduction of Bosnian into schools, told Novi Pazar’s Radio 100 Plus that the new classes would benefit the whole community.

Bulic said the optional course would “provide quality programmes, textbooks and teaching staff, so the language becomes a regular and essential subject at school for the Bosniak population”.

Teachers from both sides of the community are not so enthusiastic, however.

Rahima Hajdinovic, a Bosniak teacher at Novi Pazar’s Brotherhood primary school, says she was concerned about the prospect of teaching children something that she herself does not know very well.

“It does not look like Bosnian to me,” she said, after taking a look at the proposed textbook. “There are too many local words and expressions.”

She said she would observe the ministry’s decision, as would her colleagues, but was not pleased with the textbook.

Hajdinovic said Sandzak intellectuals should have been more involved in its creation. “Many of them are qualified to take part in such an enterprise,” she added.

Primary school second-grade teacher Budimirka Miljaljevic, a Serb, shares her colleague’s doubts, though from a different standpoint.

She said she would not know how to explain the new linguistic divisions to children, “We already have divisions on religious lines with Serb children on one side and Bosniak children on the other.”

“How can I explain to them now they are not the same?” she asked.

Hivzo Golos, a Bosniak historian and an archive director, said many people would not accept the two languages were anything other than dialects of one another.

“The question is how the whole idea will be implemented in the schools,” he said.

“For some, it is totally normal but for others it is unacceptable. To some, this Bosniak language will always be the 'ijekavski' dialect of Serbian.”

Golos said both views were true to an extent, “but politicians are always vocal in announcing their 'huge successes'. Logically, one ought not to try to score political points on issues like this”.

Local people who were interviewed by IWPR on the streets of Novi Pazar appeared equally in two minds about the language project.

“Apparently, it is not important any more who is saying what, but which language he uses,” one elderly man commented, obliquely.

More positively, Mirza Hadzifejzovic, a university student, said he did not speak the Bosnian language himself but believed that his children would, one day. “It is important to know what your mother tongue is,” he said.

Significantly, most people asked about the issue, irrespective of their views or background, did not want their names mentioned. They all know one another and most did not wanted to annoy their neighbours.

Bisera Spasovic, a coordinator at the Sandzak Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, a local NGO, said the attempt to separate Bosnian and Serbian speakers missed the point. “We all speak a Novi Pazar vernacular,” she insisted. “We certainly do not need interpreters.”

Spasovic said that problems would occur in implementing Bosnian language tuition in such a multi-ethnic area.

“It would be horrible holding classes exclusively for one ethnic group and it would give rise to nationalism,” she continued.

“The children should have been prepared first, as well as the teaching staff, but obviously someone’s political ambitions took precedence over this.”

Other NGOs have been more welcoming of the move, describing it as a gesture that takes into account the existing ethnic diversity among local people.

But they all said they hoped no one would place too much emphasis on these mutual differences.

In the meantime, most citizens of Novi Pazar say they feel the current squabbles and insistence on differences will fizzle out in the end.

They simply nod their approval for any solution to the problem, fed up with these sorts of issues.

“Oh it’s just ridiculous,” Serif, a Bosniak bus driver said. “What kind of a language is this? The kids learn Serbo-Croat, not Bosnian.”

At the Stevan Nemanja primary school in Novi Pazar, Ramiz is equally uninterested in the question of whether to speak Bosnian, Serbo-Croat or Serbian.

“Let me go, this is all so stupid, I want to play,” he answers, sagging under the weight of his schoolbag.

Alma Rizvanovic and Jasmina Krusevljanin took part in an IWPR journalism training programme in Novi Pazar funded by the OSCE in Belgrade.