By Igor Jovanovic
After a week marked by tension in northern Kosovo, Belgrade saw the re-emergence of two other potential trouble spots. First, some Bosniak factions in the western Serbian region of Sandzak announced they would push for autonomy.
Next, Albanians in southern Serbia began organising protest rallies, dissatisfied with the conditions in local education.
Analysts in Belgrade believe developments in these two parts of Serbia are linked to the Kosovo crisis, and also with Serbia’s aspiration to gain EU candidate status by the end of the year.
“At this moment Serbia is under a lot of pressure over northern Kosovo, as well as over some other issues related to the possibility of gaining EU candidate status,” said Predrag Simic, a political science professor at the University of Belgrade. “I think that pressure is present at this particular moment, when Serbia is highly sensitive to that sort of criticism from Brussels.”
The Sandzak issue flared on Thursday (September 15th) with a statement by Mufti Muamer Zukorlic — leader of the Islamic Community in Serbia. He accused Belgrade of discriminating against Bosniaks in Sandzak and announced the region would seek autonomy.
Sandzak, he added, would open regional offices in Brussels, Washington, Istanbul and Sarajevo.
Zukorlic has received support from Bosnian Muslim leader Reis Mustafa Ceric, who blasted Belgrade for “carrying out increased discrimination” against the Sandzak Bosniaks.
Belgrade is aiming to create “an environment of fear and lynching” in Sandzak, Ceric said, warning of a “new crisis point in Europe”. He compared the atmosphere to that which preceded the outbreak of conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s.
His comments were met with disapproval by Bosniak party representatives in the Serbian government.
Meho Omerovic, a Bosniak MP with the ruling coalition, said Ceric’s statements were “disturbing and dangerous” and would bring “nothing good” to the Bosniaks in Sandzak.
“Instead of reconciling his believers, the reis is an additional factor in new divisions,” Omerovic said.
According to Dusan Janjic, president of the Forum for Ethnic Relations, it is no accident that the controversy is heating up now.
“By making that statement, Ceric aims to put the issue of Sandzak on the agenda of Serbia’s open issues,” Janjic said. “Because when Serbia becomes a member candidate and gets a date for the beginning of negotiations with the EU, it may be too late.”
Simic, meanwhile, agrees that comparisons with the pre-Milosevic era are off base. However, he said, Sandzak does suffer from economic woes and resulting social tensions.
“There is a difficult social situation in Sandzak that is not much worse than the situation in other parts of Serbia, but due to multiethnic makeup and the vicinity of Bosnia, it is given additional ethnic characteristics,” Simic told SETimes.
Prior to the Sandzak announcement, several thousand Albanians from southern Serbia held a protest rally in Bujanovac on September 13th, disgruntled over omissions in the education system meant for the minority.
The Albanian representative in the Serbian parliament said the rally “was not political”, and its objective had been to show that Albanians were having trouble with education, “primarily due to the lack of textbooks in Albanian”.
After that event, the Serbian government announced there had indeed been omissions in the system, stressing it would try to speed up efforts to solve the problem.