Belgrade/Brussels, 8 April 2005: Despite ethnic tensions, conflict can be avoided in Serbia's Sandzak region if the Belgrade government and local leaders act wisely.
Serbia's Sandzak: Still Forgotten,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the potential for ethnic violence in this underdeveloped, Muslim-Slav (Bosniak) majority region straddling Montenegro and Serbia and bordering Bosnia and Kosovo. The study finds the atmosphere tense but generally peaceful. Provided Belgrade deals with the region's problems and reins in nationalist forces, the situation ought to be manageable, although some forces on both sides seem to be trying to stoke conflict.
Sandzak's tensions are very real. Under the Milosevic regime, official state terror against Bosniaks included beatings, arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, murders, and the ethnic cleansing of entire villages. Successor Serbian governments have addressed lingering animosities either half-heartedly or not at all. Given the recent history of Serbian behaviour, many Bosniaks fear for their welfare, and otherwise minor grievances often take on ethnic overtones.
Nevertheless, James Lyon, Crisis Group's Serbia Project Director, says, "Even in the event next-door Kosovo becomes independent, Sandzak should remain calm. It is unlikely there will be a 'domino effect' here".
Since Milosevic's ouster, there have been some halting and partial steps to integrate the Muslims into the Serbian political mainstream and treat them as equal citizens, but progress is slow. While Serbia is learning how to treat its Muslims without discrimination, so, too, the Bosniaks must make extra efforts to protect Serb rights in those areas where they form a majority and are acquiring political power.
A number of political and religious groups still act as if they have a vested interest in destabilising Sandzak. The Islamic Community and the Serbian Orthodox Church need to engage each other frequently on an official and unofficial basis in order to help keep their extremists in line. Most importantly, leaders of both faiths should monitor closely the public statements of their clerics, taking particular care to stop hate speech.
"But much of what plagues Sandzak -- corruption, dysfunctional state structures, organised crime, and official incompetence -- is a microcosm of Serbia as a whole", says Nicholas Whyte, Crisis Group's Europe Program Director. "The changes necessary to address these root problems will come only when Belgrade passes laws that the entire country needs".