Monday, April 18, 2005

The Hissing Snake of Sandzak Separatism

The Sandzak is an area in Serbia and Montenegro that is inhabited by a significant Muslim minority (who formed a slight majority of 54% in the Sandzak according to the 1991 census), and, from Yugoslavia’s gradual death to this day, it has been a hotbed of Muslim nationalism and separatism. The purpose of this article is to show that this movement was extremist, nationalist, and separatist, not an innocent campaign for autonomy, as it is portrayed in the few Western publications that actually mention it.

The Muslim nationalist and separatist movement in the Sandzak first appeared when the Yugoslav political system turned to democracy in 1990. The Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Muslim nationalist party led by Alija Izetbegovic (elected President of Bosnia in late 1990) to represent the Muslims of Yugoslavia, in particular Bosnia, began to organise the local Muslims, forming a branch for the region in June 1990. Sulejman Ugljanin, vice-president of the SDA for all of Yugoslavia, was elected president of this Sandzak branch, which immediately began campaigning on the national question. As early as June 1990 Izetbegovic said that if Serbia and Montenegro unified in a future federation or confederation then the Muslims would demand cultural and political autonomy for the Sandzak, and as the Yugoslav crisis escalated so did the platform.

Originally Izetbegovic and the SDA were, in public at least, in favour of the preservation of Yugoslavia, and Izetbegovic even attended the launch of the Bosnian branch of the Serb Democratic Party, headed by Radovan Karadzic, and spoke of the spoke of the need for a healthy Yugoslav federation. Izetbegovic was definitely not, however, prepared to have Bosnia stay in Yugoslavia if Croatia and Slovenia left - in August 1990 at a rally at Foca he stated this openly, proclaiming that the Muslims would then ‘defend Bosnia’ with arms if necessary. Thus, as Croatia and Slovenia moved further towards independence and secession, so did Bosnia, pushed along by the Muslim-Croat (SDA-HDZ) alliance, alongside which SDA nationalist and separatist demands in the Sandzak intensified.

In March 1991, for example, the SDA threatened to declare ‘autonomy’ for the Sandzak if any other Yugoslav republic seceded or if they deemed it necessary to protect the Muslims (giving plenty of scope for action), and in May 1991 a Muslim National Council was formed to represent the Muslims of the Sandzak, with Ugljanin at its head. Then in October, after the Muslim-Croat alliance in the Bosnian parliament illegally adopted a declaration on the sovereignty and independence of Bosnia, the Sandzak SDA organised a referendum on ‘autonomy’, which it claimed 98.9% of voters approved, and in January 1992 the Muslim National Council voted to demand ‘special status’ for the area.

If this separatist movement is ever mentioned in Western publications, these moves are usually portrayed as a pretty much innocent move on the part of a minority to attain autonomy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The goal was not ‘autonomy’, but full separation from Serbia and Montenegro, and hopefully unification with Izetbegovic’s independent Bosnia.

The SDA-organised October referendum was on “full political and territorial autonomy [i.e. only very weak, if any, ties with Serbia, Montenegro, and Yugoslavia] with the right to join one of the other republics [i.e. Bosnia]”, and the January vote was in favour of the ‘special status’ that the EC was proposing for Kosovo (which would have given Kosovo the all-but-formal republic status and independence that the 1974 constitution had given it), and the right to secede and unite with other republics (i.e. Bosnia). The goal was thus not innocent and mild autonomy, but complete separation and unification with Muslim Bosnia.

A major problem for the SDA in demanding this was that the whole basis for their claim that Bosnian Serbs could not remain in Yugoslavia and had to be in the independent Bosnia the Muslim-Croat alliance had proclaimed was the principle of inalterability of borders. To get around this blatant hypocrisy, when the Muslim National Council met in August 1992 in Novi Pazar they declared two possible options for the Sandzak. The first was that if Serbia and Montenegro asked separately for international recognition as states, then they would demand the so-called ‘special status’ (practically complete separation and independence) they spoke of, but with respect for the principle of inalterability of borders. The second option was that if Serbia and Montenegro asked for recognition as a single state, then they would demand that the Sandzak become a sovereign territory. Given that Montenegrin separatism was practically non-existent at this stage, and therefore if Serbia and Montenegro ever asked for recognition, they would ask for it as a single state, Yugoslavia, the first option clearly represented a mere tactical ploy. This is evident from SDA public statements, for example Izetbegovic’s demands in 1993 that Sandzak be joined with Bosnia, and Ugljanin’s November 1993 statement to the same effect: that “Sandzak must join Bosnia”.

The Muslim National Council’s ‘Memorandum on Establishing Special Status for Sandzak‘, adopted in June 1993, shows us exactly what the more moderate option for Sandzak, instead of full-blown unification with Bosnia, was- and ‘autonomy’ it is not. According to the Memorandum, “Sandzak’s authorities” would have state authority and state powers in all areas except environmental protection, roads, railways and electrics, which would belong to Yugoslavia. Ties with Yugoslavia would be extremely weak, even formally. Sandzak would have a Constitution, a legislative assembly, and a government, headed by a governor. It would have its own independent police and judiciary, along with control over taxes, legislature, education, culture, the exploitation of natural resources, banks, and so on. Sandzak would even have the right to enter into international relations with other states (once again, i.e. Bosnia) in the economic, cultural and education fields (along with a few others).

The position the SDA was formally demanding for the Sandzak would thus have exceeded even that of Kosovo and Vojvodina under the 1974 constitution, which had effectively divided Serbia into three separate and basically independent states. Not surprisingly, the Yugoslav authorities refused to accept the document, and insisted that the Muslims in the region had the same rights as the citizens of other nationalities, and could exercise the protection and development of cultural, religious, and other forms of ethnic particularities within the framework of existing institutions. Soon after its publication the Memorandum was also banned by the courts, “because it gives rise to hatred and entices national and religious intolerance”.

As one can guess from the previous paragraph, the Yugoslav, Serbian and Montenegrin authorities reacted calmly and reasonably to the separatist threat in the Sandzak, just like they did in Kosovo, and did not over-react with mass repression or threats, sparking, or giving the excuse for, a mass revolt or armed campaign. On the eve of the referendum, for example, the Vice-President of the Serbian government went to Sandzak to try to calm the situation, condemning the referendum as “a biased political act devised by a group of SDA extremists”, and the government of the Republic of Serbia appealed “to the Muslims to circumvent the manipulation of [their] religious and national feelings solely aimed at the disintegration of the Republic of Serbia and to condemn the attempt to disturb inter-national relations”. And, unlike, for example, the Croatian government in August 1990 when the Serbs held a plebiscite on what genuinely was only autonomy, the Serbian government, despite declaring the referendum illegal, did not try to use force to prevent it. I will go into more detail on the equal rights of the Muslims with Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro) in the 1990s later, and for now it suffices to know that the Serbian and Montenegrin authorities were moderate. The same cannot be said for the SDA.

We have seen already that the demands of the SDA were separatist, at a minimum demanding almost complete independence for the Sandzak, and seeing unification with Bosnia as the ultimately desirable goal. On top of this, however, the Sandzak SDA was also radical and extremist, and well before Yugoslavia disintegrated.

As early as July 1990, Ugljanin threatened that “if Serbia continues implementing its [non-existent] anti-Albanian and [non-existent] anti-Muslim policy, a common Croatian-Muslim front will be opened soon”, and in November 1990, almost a year before Bosnia declared sovereignty, he spoke of “Sandzak [becoming] a new, Muslim autonomous region in Serbia that will even secede”. In June 1991 he explained their policy perfectly clearly: “In the event of disintegration of Yugoslavia, our attitude is clear and we will not abandon it. Sandzak will be at least an autonomous area, as in 1945 [see later]. We have no reason to hide that our final objective is a republic”. And then, in October, the SDA denounced the authorities as “fascists”, and proclaimed that “no one can stop the Muslims from fulfilling their historical ambitions”. Extremist and fear-mongering propaganda claims that Serbia was conducting a genocide against the Muslims in the Sandzak were also repeatedly voiced over the following decade, all without basis (see later).

Ugljanin’s public statements also clearly reveal him to be an extremist. In February 1992, for example, Ugljanin ranted that “if the plot of Europe and America against the Muslim people continues [author’s note: what the hell is he on about? Europe and America recognised and supported the Muslim-Croatian alliance’s illegal move to independence in Bosnia, and prompted them to hold a referendum, riding rough-shed over the national rights of the Serbs. Only a lunatic - Ugljanin - could consider them anti-Muslim], the war in Sandzak is inevitable”. Ugljanin must have enjoyed threatening war because he did it an awful lot, and later in 1992 announced that “if anyone attacks Kosovo, the Muslims will defend the Albanians” (at the time he was trying to form a separatist alliance with the Albanian separatists in Kosovo). He also infamously said that “the Muslims are well-armed, they just lack tanks”. He wasn’t bluffing, either - the Patriotic League, a Muslim paramilitary organisation created in early 1991, was active and organised in the Sandzak.

The Muslim separatist campaign in the Sandzak, then, was clearly extremist in nature. It also had an Islamic element to it. The SDA displayed religious flags at their rallies (alongside Turkish ones), and, according to Adil Zulfikarpasic, a founder of the SDA who split from it in September 1990 to form a secular party, imams and religious officials practically took over the party. He has described a 1990 rally in Novi Pazar (in the Sandzak) as being conducted in a “pro-fascist” way, with hundreds of religious flags, and SDA guards everywhere. The SDA’s Islamic element had a lot of influence on the movement in the Sandzak, and Ugljinan said in October 1991 that following the establishment of Sandzak as a republic a referendum would be held on whether the new state would be secular or Islamic.

Quite understandably, the 45% of the population of the Sandzak that was Serb or Montenegrin, and the Serbian, Montenegrin, and Yugoslav authorities, opposed this extremist separatist movement. They were right to do so, and there is no real basis for providing a ‘special status’ for the Sandzak, even if this really were only autonomy and not separatism.

The argument has been made many times that as the Serbian and Montenegrin governments supported the right of the Serbs of Croatia to self-determination or autonomy, it was hypocritical to deny these rights to the Muslims of the Sandzak, as the Muslims were also a nation of Yugoslavia. This argument has no validity. The Muslims in the Sandzak, unlike the Serbs in Croatia, did not have the status of a ‘constituent nation’ in Serbia or Montenegro, making up as they did only about 3% of the population of Serbia as a whole, for example. Serb moves in Croatia, unlike Muslim moves in the Sandzak, were also fundamentally reactive.

The Serbs in Croatia were reacting against the election of a radical nationalist, Franjo Tudjman, and the nationalist atmosphere that that created; their removal from the constitution; the purges of them from their jobs; Croatia’s illegal arming and attempts to secure control over Serb areas by force; Croatia’s moves towards secession from Yugoslavia; and so on.

The Muslims did not face that in the Sandzak - Serbia was not seceding from Yugoslavia; Slobodan Milosevic, a socialist, did not implement any discriminatory policies against the Muslims; and the ruling Socialist Party, far from looking upon Muslims hostilely like the Croatian Democratic Union did the Serbs, actually in 1990-1991 expected the Muslims as a whole (including the Bosnian Muslims) to remain in Yugoslavia, and spoke frequently of equality with them.

Serb moves in Croatia were also very moderate, and then radicalised by Croatia’s violent response and secession from Yugoslavia. Sandzak Muslim moves, as we have seen, were not.

Most importantly, the Serbs in Croatia were demanding (when Croatia seceded) the right to self-determination (the right to remain in Yugoslavia) for the areas in which they were the majority, and it was exactly those areas that they controlled during the war years. The SDA in the Sandzak, however, was demanding sovereignty or secession for what they claimed was an historic region, the Sandzak, despite the fact that in two-thirds of this region Serbs and Montenegrins were the majority, and two-thirds of the land in the Sandzak was owned by Serbs and Montenegrins.

These two facts alone are reason enough why the Sandzak should not have had a ‘special status’. A special status for a hypothetical region (Sandzak was and is partly in Serbia and partly in Montenegro, and is not administratively a region) can hardly be justified when the majority of the population in two-thirds of that region are adamantly against it.

Faced with the two options of the Muslims accepting equal minority status in Serbia and Montenegro, a minority status which they had had lived with for over seven decades, and the Serb and Montenegrin population of the Sandzak, which is a part of Serbia and Montenegro and which they are the majority population in two-thirds of, having to, against their will, be reduced from part of the majority population in their homelands to a minority in a possibly Islamic Sandzak or Greater Bosnia, any reasonable person would say that the former clearly makes sense, and the later would be ludicrously unjust. This is made doubly true by the fact that in the Sandzak the Serbs and Montenegrin populations were and are not the ones raising the national question, making nationalist demands, or mistreating the other nation. And that it is exactly why the Serbian and Montenegrin governments were right to reject separatist ‘special status’ of some form for the area, and why that does not represent any injustice or unfairness towards the Muslims.

The Muslim campaign in the Sandzak, as I hope this article will have shown, was not an innocent campaign of a minority for equality, greater rights, or local self-government and autonomy, it was an extremist, nationalist and Islamist-leaning separatist movement, for whose demands there was no just or rational basis.

In a follow-up article, I will look at several other issues relating to Sandzak separatism, some of which I briefly referred to here. I will look at the recent history of the Sandzak to show resolutely that there is no basis for ‘special status’ for the Sandzak. I will also explain what happened in the 1990s, showing that the behaviour of the authorities (particularly the so-called “Milosevic regime”) was not anti-Muslim, despite the separatist campaign. And, finally, I hope to look at separatism in the Sandzak since the fall of Milosevic.

Unfortunately, due to general busy-ness, I will not be able to post any more articles until July. I will then hopefully do the follow-up article to this, finish the “Bosnia’s Highway to Hell” series, look at whether Kosovo’s autonomy really was unilaterally revoked, and many other issues. If you found any of the articles thus far posted interesting or informative, please bookmark the site and come back in a few months time.


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