Impressions from the Field II

As stated in last week’s post “Impressions from the Field”, relations among the Bosniak population of Sandžak is more tense compared to relations between Bosniaks and Serbs.

The reason for this is twofold. First, tensions between Serbs and Bosniaks ought to be examined from a gubernatorial point of view and less from a social perspective. In other words, frustration on the Bosniak side stems mainly from their dissatisfaction with the national government.

Reasons for this are numerous. The unemployment rate has doubled in the past ten years – from 11,000 to 22,000. During a conversation at the Centar za Zapošljavanje (center for employment) in Novi Pazar, I learned that the flawed privatization process and a lack of foreign investment are the main reasons for the rising unemployment numbers. Among the reasons for the nearly absent investment to Sandžak may be its proximity to Kosovo and Belgrade’s unresolved border dispute with Priština where unrest among Kosovars and Serbs continues. The lack of investment may also be due to the poor regional infrastructure. Between Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, and Novi Pazar, Sandžak’s largest city, lies 290 kilometers and yet it takes more than six hours to reach Novi Pazar by bus. The roads are windy, narrow and lined with potholes – this is especially true for the road from Novi Pazar to Tutin and Sjenica. The closest airport to Novi Pazar is located in Niš – another three to four hour bus ride on a windy road. To be sure, Novi Pazar is located in Serbia’s mountainous area and roads are thus windy by default, yet, regional investments are visibly lacking. From time to time, the electricity will cut out and the water pressure is not strong enough to ensure continuous flow up toward to steeper slopes of the town – hardly an attractive place for foreign investors. As a result, Novi Pazar’s population is disillusioned with the government that is to blame for insufficient care of the region.

Picture taken from the Novi Pazar Altun-Alem Mosque minaret – looking north, toward Belgrade

Unemployment, as mentioned above, is high as is amply visible when strolling through the city center. The cafes and šetališta, or promenade, are never empty no matter if one passes at nine in the morning, one if the afternoon or eight in the evening. Unsurprisingly, the situation is harmful, as many of the people out strolling – often without a penny in their pockets I was told – would prefer to work so as to earn a living. The desire to earn money was in fact a returning theme in conversations with locals. Men and women even promise their loyalty to a particular party or religious faction in return for a place to work. “If you cannot feed your kid you are willing do anything, even side with a political party or religious faction you disagree with”, I was told time and again. This coincides with the comparatively ‘young’ Bosniak identity that is torn into different directions – a situation that is creating tensions among the population in Sandžak.

To put things in perspective, there are three ideological directions of political and religious nature that jockey to represent the region; Serbia – Turkey, and a wider – borderless faction that is guided by the mores of Islam.

Rasim Ljajić, minister of head of labour, employment and social issues and head of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), may stand to represent the political faction that seeks to affect change from within the system. Novi Pazar born Ljajić entered a coalition with Serbia’s former president Boris Tadić and his Democratic Party (DS) while representing his community in Serbia’s capital Belgrade. Ljajić arguably enjoys the largest support in Novi Pazar and surrounding regions – Ljajić’s SDP received the largest amount of votes (in coalition with DS). From this, one may extrapolate that a significant bloc of Novi Pazar voters supports cooperation with Serbia’s government.

Remnant from the national and local elections 2012, picture taken close to the market area in Novi Pazar

Sulejman Ugljanin’s Democratic Action Party (SDA) represents another political group. Though his exact stance is more ambiguous, one may argue that Ljajić represents the group that is ideologically closest aligned with Turkey. To be sure, several media outlets have in the past reported on Ljajić’s cooperation with the Vehabije (followers of Salafi traditions on the Balkan Peninsula). Some details, however, speak against such a theory and instead point toward a closer connection with Ankara. Ugljanin often seem to travel to Turkey for governmental purposes, even though he is a minister without a fotelje (literal translation of sofa, meaning portfolio in Serbia). During the 1990’s, Ugljanin also sought and received political asylum in Turkey.

Permanent banner promoting the Democratic Action Party, picture taken close to the local government in Novi Pazar

On the religious-political side, we find Mufti Muamer Zukorlić who claims to lead the Bosniak community based on religious values. His position too is not entirely clear. In the past, he has been linked to Vehabije (Wahhabi) though he has denied such allegations. At any rate, Zukorlić seems to base his claim to power – political and/or religious – on his growing connectivity to Islamic bodies and states. The Novi Pazar based Islamic Community was latest adopted to the Islamic Cooperation Organization which then released a declaration according to which events in Sandžak ought to be monitored more closely. Zukorlić thus employs religious avenues to promote his cause – or that of the Bosniak community in Sandžak.

Banner and picture of Mufti Muamer Zukorlić, picture taken in Novi Pazar’s city square.

No proof exists, however, that links Ljajić – Ugljanin or Zukorlić to the Serbian government, Turkey or religious ideologies indefinitely. Zukorlić for instance also studied in Turkey while Ugljanin too was brought into connections with the Vehabi movement. What is instead sure is that the three cooperated closely until they split in the 1990’s and the political and religious rivalry has meanwhile affected the social climate in Novi Pazar.


Picture taken in Novi Pazar’s Old Town – proverb from the Quran promoting the wearing of headscarf.


“If you want a job”, I was told, “you better align with one of the political parties – otherwise you are likely to stay unemployed. If you promise to give your vote to candidate X, you will get a job in return”. To whom did you promise your vote to then? I asked a young man as we sat together near the city center. “Nobody”, he said. “You do know that I am unemployed, right”? he returned. This is allegedly the fate of many Sandžaklias – a situation amply illustrated by way of graffiti around the town.

Picture taken in Novi Pazars southern region, close to the town of Ribariće – in the upper left of the window hangs a picture of Tito, other picture illustrate Arabic calligraphy.

Houses, park benches and alleyways are consequently lined with slogans and party abbreviations, perhaps to displays one’s loyalty. Loyalty may also be displayed by way of dress. Time and again I was told that women receive somewhere between 300 and 400 Euros a month for wearing conservative dress. This is – should it truly be that way – an impressive amount of money considering that the average monthly salary in Serbia’s south lies somewhere around 25,000 Serbian Dinars, or 218 Euros, and unemployment high.

“TS” stands for Torcida Sandžak and represents the soccer fan club of the Novo Pazarian soccer club. TS is in good relations with Turkish soccer clubs and some say that TS represents Novi Pazarian relations with Turkey. The picture was taken close to the soccer stadium and reads “when injustice becomes the rule / resistance is our duty”

It is then the national governments’ inaction regarding the infrastructure and otherwise insufficient care of the region that angers Bosniaks the most. Jobs are consequently not created in the region, which gives political and religious leaders the opportunity to induce the population to vote in their favor in return for jobs. Tension is thus predominantly not between Serbs and Bosniaks. Instead, tensions are greater among Bosniaks, and are fueled by feuding politicians that seek to find a direction for the young Bosniak identity.