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Serbia: Serbs Leaving Sandzak

Departure of Serbs from Sandzak believed to be triggered by policies of Bosniak nationalists
By IWPR staff

Serbs are beginning to leave the predominantly Muslim Sandzak region of south-west Serbia after losing public sector jobs, local Serb representatives say.


Some Serbs estimate that around 1,000 members of the community in the largest town in the region, Novi Pazar, have left over the last couple of years. New For Sale signs appear on Serb homes and land throughout the region almost daily.


More departures could have serious implications for the stability of the country, with some predicting a possible nationalist Serb backlash.


The exodus is believed to have been prompted by the predominantly Muslim Party of Democratic Action, SDA, which has dismissed Serb managers in state companies and local authorities since coming to power two years ago.


Federal Minister for National and Ethnic Communities Rasim Ljajic, who leads the moderate Bosniak Coalition for Sandzak, told IWPR that "the reasons for Serb departures are economic but one certainly shouldn't overlook other reasons linked to the actions of the SDA."


Head of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, municipal committee Milan Veselinovic is more blunt, "The extremist statements and actions of the SDA have resulted in a situation in which over 70 Serb houses in the very centre of Novi Pazar have been sold in the past two years. There the Serb proportion of the population has dropped from 22 to around 17 per cent. "


The SDA led by Sulejman Ugljanin has long called for Sandzak to be made a republic and in the past prominent party members have also talked of secession from Serbia and annexation to Bosnia.


Widely-publicised statements made by Ugljanin in the 1990s include "the Muslims are well-armed, they just lack tanks" (Globus, October 1992) and "Sandzak would become a new, Muslim autonomous region in Serbia that will even secede" (Novosti, November 1990).


This was a period when convoys of Bosniaks - which is how local Muslims describe themselves - were fleeing Sandzak for Sarajevo or Turkey, fearing that the war in neighbouring Bosnia would spread and they would be targeted by the Milosevic regime.


However, while there is no longer public talk of a republic, Milosevic's fall in 2000 and a general change in Belgrade's policy direction does not appear to have done much to alter SDA thinking.


In June this year, a public statement from a session of the regional executive body the Bosniak National Council of Sandzak, which has close links with the SDA, said, "There are no reasons for us to ingratiate ourselves either to Belgrade or Podgorica, or the international community because Sandzak must be a separate territorial unit".


Participants at the session also declared that they must not give up on an illegal referendum held in 1991, in which a clear majority voted for autonomy.


Serb directors in Novi Pazar to lose their jobs include the head of the town's culture centre Dusan Raicevic; Raco Vuckovic of the Toplane heating company; Elektroras director Mile Cvetic; and Miroljub Djokanovic, director of the firm, Vojin Popovic.


In turn, appointments to local government at the end of 2000 saw Ugljanin's personal secretary Vasvija Gusinac become mayor of Sandzak, his brother, Sadik, head of the executive committee and driver, Nedzib Hodzic, deputy major.


The only Serb in authority, municipal secretary Milijan Belic "is just for decor and the local Serbs do not recognise him as their representative," said Radenko Jokovic, head of the United Peoples Party, SNS, in the Raska district.


Like Ljajic, the head of the Liberal Bosniak Organisation, Kasim Zoranic, said the major motivation behind the Serb withdrawal was economic, "The price of real-estate in Novi Pazar is three times higher than that in other parts of Serbia."


An apartment in Novi Pazar costs approximately 750 euros per square metre compared with 400 euros in the central Serbian cities of Kraljevo and Kragujevac.


A Serb who had shifted from Novi Pazar to Kragujevac, and who insisted on anonymity, agreed that there was a range of motives for Serb departures.


"There was always some tension felt at work. There was no open pressure but one could feel insecurity and some kind of fear in the air. Maybe more a feeling of uncertainty of what could happen and what the Novi Pazar authorities could do," he said.


"On the other hand the difference in the price of a flat sold in Novi Pazar and one bought in Kragujevac is quite alluring especially for those who are in a difficult financial situation."


Whatever lies behind the Serb departures, SDA-ruled local authorities are showing no interest.


Assistant to the head of the Novi Pazar municipal executive committee Kimeta Ramovic recently told a Sandzak news agency that they had neither information nor any comment on the migration.


That local Serbs have lost the backing they enjoyed during Milosevic's rule has been made clear by the fact that the current Serbian leadership has not held a single meeting with them since they came to power.


Such complacency is astonishing as there's a danger that if more Serbs leave Sandzak, Bosniak nationalists could press for their demands for autonomy provoking another Balkan crisis.