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Monday, October 23, 2006


Novi Pazar, 23 Oct. (AKI) - Encouraged by Serbia’s breakaway southern province of Kosovo's drive for independence, Muslims in the neighboring Sandzak region have taken steps towards regional autonomy. On the initiative of Sandzak mufti Muamer Zukorlic, five Sandzak Muslim political parties at the weekend signed a declaration demanding from Belgrade authorities to "start a dialogue to solve the status of Bosniacs (Muslims) in Serbia and the status of Sandzak region. "

Kosovo Muslims, who call themselves Bosniacs since neighboring Bosnia, with majority Muslim population, gained independence in 1992, complain they were neither consulted about nor participated in the drafting of the new constitution. "It is unacceptable that Serbia is defined in the first article of the constitution as the Serbian people's state, ignoring the principles of European regionalism," Sandzak Muslim leaders said in their weekend declaration.

The new Serb constitution states that apart from Serbs, Serbia is also the state “of other peoples who live in it”. But Muslim leaders claim that the state symbols, including the national anthem, don’t take into account that "Serbia is a multinational and multicultural state."

Sandzak Muslims share Kosovo Muslims' opposition to Serbia's new constitution, which while reaffirming Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, does not define Sandzak's status. One dissenting Muslim voice however came from Novi Pazar mayor Sulejman Ugljanin, leader of the Democratic Action Party, entered Serbian parliament on the list of president Boris Tadic’s democrats, but his deputies recently deserted Tadic’s ranks and are now supporting prime minister Vojislav Kostunica’s government.

Ugljanin, a dentist, is the only Sandzak Muslim leader who didn’t sign the declaration against the new constitution. Rather, he called on his followers to come out and vote at the referendum for the new constitution. "Put on your best clothes and turn out happily to vote for the new Serbian constitution, because it guarantees civil, minority and human rights," said Ugljanin.

The Serbian parliament in September unanimously approved the new constitution, which still has to be confirmed at a referendum on 28-29 October. By stating that Kosovo is an "inalienable part of Serbia," the document aims to thwart moves by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority - which have gained increasing support from the international community - to gain independence.

Sandzak was founded as a military district during Turkish occupation in 1451. Current estimates on the size of the Muslim and Serb populations vary, but Muslims form a significant group in the region. Local Muslims voted for autonomy at a referendum in 1991, but the referendum was declared invalid by the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Muslims, nevertheless, have their own media, schools and the right to the Bosnian language, which is similar to Serbian.

Mufti Zukorlic, spiritual leader of Sandzak Muslims, recently took steps to form a university in the region’s political and business centre, Novi Pazar, which sparked polemics even among Muslims, since there are already several faculties operated by Belgrade University. Another argument was that there is no point in opening a university by a spiritual leader, which wouldn’t have a multiethnic character, but that it this should be done by the civil authorities.

Sandzak has been one of the poorest areas of Serbia, but in the nineties it experienced a startling economic boom, thanks to private enterprise and small businesses mainly concentrated in the textile and footwear sectors. Novi Pazar’s population is mostly Muslim - over 65,000 - compared to around 20,000 Serbs. Inter-ethnic incidents have been on the rise lately.

Serbs claim a radical Islamist wahabi movement, financed with Saudi money, has been active in the region lately, contributing to ethnic tension there. Serbs say that Saudis have been paying Muslim women to wear Islamic robes and veil in public - contrary to the region’s traditions.

Novi Pazar is in the process of transformation into a modern city, but the ethos of the Ottoman empire lingers on: there is an old Turkish fortress and several oriental-style buildings. Ninety per cent of total trade in the city is done by private firms, and private companies employ half of the city’s 20,000 work force.

How political passions, even among the same ethnic group, could sometime get out of control was illustrated at recent municipal elections, when one Ugljanin’s councilman was killed at a polling place by a member of a rival Sandzak Democratic Party.
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