Novi Pazar; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The beginning of the 2020 election year in Serbia was marked by significant changes in the election legislation. The electoral threshold was reduced from 5 to 3 per cent, causing controversy, while the number of votes won by the parties of national minorities will first be increased by 35 per cent before the distribution of mandates.

It seems that, with the new rules in place, the parties of national minorities, especially those that are well organized and politically “enlarged”, could get an easier access for their representatives in the national parliament. However, the Bosniak parties have put out three separate lists of candidates for the elections.

The Party of Reconciliation and Justice (SPP), led by Muamer Zukorlić, will participate in a coalition with the Democratic Party of Macedonians, the Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDPS) led by Rasim Ljajić is in the coalition with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, while the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) of Sulejman Ugljanin will try to win seats in Parliament on its own.

In early March, SPP leader Muamer Zukorlić called for a unified Bosniak list to finally ensure the unity of Bosniaks, but the proposal was rejected by two other Bosniak leaders.

Safeta Biševac, a journalist of the Belgrade daily Danas, told for EWB that a change in the election rules could lead to national minority parties, which are subject to a “natural threshold” calculated according to D’Hondt’s system, getting fewer MPs.

“It’s simply that the threshold is lower. It is expected that more lists will enter the parliament and that there will be fewer votes cast, which means that minority parties, and thus Bosniaks, would find it harder to enter the parliament,” says Biševac.

According to her, it does not mean that a lower census will automatically damage minority parties, but that everything depends on how many parties will pass the census and how many votes will be needed for one seat.

“It is easy for ‘larger’ minorities, such as Hungarians and Bosniaks, to get their political representatives in the Serbian Parliament. There are more problems when it comes to smaller minorities, Croats, for example,” explains the columnist Danas and the editor of the Sandžak Danas section.

Biševac believes that as far as Sandžak Bosniaks are concerned, they will again have an opportunity to vote within the Ljajić-Zukorlić-Ugljanin triangle, with the first two politicians part of the government, and the SDA’s Sulejman Ugljanin, an opposition with ambitious demands for Sandžak’s special status and autonomy and resolving the national status of Bosniaks.

“When it comes to Sandžak and Bosniaks, it is always interesting to see who will win the local government in Novi Pazar. The ruling coalition is led by the Sandžak Democratic Party, founded by Rasim Ljajić. Their campaign is quite strong and they obviously care about keeping the largest Sandžak city at all costs,” says Biševac.

The existing legal framework in Serbia allows for adequate representation of members of the Bosniak community in government. The entry of Bosniak political representatives into the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia and the Government of the Republic of Serbia, since the 2000 elections, has been assessed as a positive achievement for strengthening Bosniak influence at the national level.

However, there are still problems with the position of members of the Bosniak community and the stability and development of Sandžak and Serbia. At the same time, the effectiveness of exercising the rights of Bosniaks is disproportionately higher at the level of the local community than in matters within the scope of the republican authorities. In reality, there is still no proportional representation in the executive branch, administration, judiciary, police, army and in the management of public companies and institutions, claims Safeta Biševac.

The conflict over “prestige” between the leaders of the Bosniak parties, primarily Ugljanin and Ljajić, has been going on since the very beginning of the SDA, and the positions in the central government are used in this conflict as well. In the bitter struggle for power over the Sandžak Bosniaks, none of the leaders hesitated to rely on “informal centres of power”, foreign governments, primarily the Turkish government as well as political leaders in Sarajevo.

Ugljanin had a dominant position among Bosniaks until the local elections in September 2004, when he was overpowered by Ljajić. Since the April 2016 elections, Zukorlić’s influence has been growing, in the National Assembly of Serbia, Bosniaks are represented by two parties, BDZ Sandžak and SDA, whose electoral lists have won two seats each. The Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDPS), led by Ljajic, which is registered as a multi-ethnic party and ran in the SNS coalition, is also part of the Bosniak electorate.

The only political activity agreed upon by the SDA, SDPS and BDZ Sandzak was a rally held in Novi Pazar in early August 2016, in support of President Erdoğan’s struggle to stay in power after the coup attempt in Turkey.

The issue of the status of Sandžak burdens the work of the Bosniak National Council

Although the special emphasis of the work of the Bosniak National Council (BNV) should be on strengthening education, culture, information, promotion of Sandžak and all current topics concerning the Bosniak people and the Bosniak community, the issue of the constitutional and legal status of Sandžak is a top priority.

Thus, after taking office in 2019, the President of BNV emphasized in an interview for Radio Free Europe, that finding an optimal solution to the constitutional and legal status of the Bosniak people and the Sandžak region is a priority issue for BNV.

That is why BNV adopted the Decision on launching an initiative to resolve the status of Bosniaks and the status of the Sandžak region, which emphasizes the establishment of a special status for Sandžak, as an optimal solution for all peoples living in this region.

This initiative, which covered all other issues of the Bosniak community, was criticized for encouraging new divisions among ethnic communities, instead of bridging the gap.

Our interlocutor Safeta Biševac believes that the work of the Bosniak National Council so far has been significantly politicized.

“We live in a country in which everything depends on politics. However, national councils are not conceived as political bodies, but rather the institutions dealing with the issues of culture, education, the information in minority languages. The BNV should deal with these issues, not the statues of Sandžak,” says Biševac.

She explains that Bosniaks have the right to education in their mother tongue, but that BNV has made so many mistakes in the organization of classes that many do not want their children to study in Bosnian.

“Many in Serbia do not recognize the Bosnian language and then the BNV, which is supposed to promote the language, does not do it properly. Of course, we Bosniaks, as a “young” nation, have a problem with a rather weak intellectual elite. Many educated Bosniaks do not want to be involved in either the BNV or political parties. They simply do not trust anyone,” emphasizes Safeta Biševac.

Economic underdevelopment of Sandžak – the overarching question

The economic situation in the Sandžak area is marked by an expression of underdevelopment inherited as a result of the policies of many governments. From the end of the twentieth century until today, it is more burdened by the intertwining of the “grey economy”, smuggling, corruption, deep reception of industrial and agricultural products and high unemployment, especially among the youth.

A synonym for the economy of Sandžak is the “spontaneous economy”, because it relies on entrepreneurs who started economic activity in the war and economic crisis in Serbia, which was then under economic sanctions from the EU and the UN, deprived of any help from the state and the banking sector.

“Most Bosniaks live in the triangle area of Novi Pazar-Sjenica-Tutin, and the part of Serbia lags behind the rest of the country, primarily when it comes to the roads, but also other types of infrastructure. The hospital in Novi Pazar, for example, had only three respirators at the beginning of the epidemic, and in addition to more than 100 thousand citizens of this city, people from neighbouring municipalities are also treated there. The position of Bosniaks is aggravated by the catastrophic economic situation and the high level of unemployment,” says Biševac adding that Novi Pazar is a city without foreign investments.

Biševac believes that the historical animosity towards Bosniaks, primarily because of the Muslim religion and the war of the 1990s, determines the position of the Bosniak minority in Serbia today.

“Many Serbs, especially intellectual circles, do not accept that we are separate community, that we have our own language, culture, but try to convince us that we are ‘Serbs of the Islamic faith’, which most of us resolutely reject. There are also specific problems, insufficient representation of Bosniaks in state administration bodies, which violates Serbia regulations which stipulate that the number of members of minorities in the police and state administration corresponds to the national structure. That is not the case in the majority Bosniak areas. For example, in Novi Pazar, where Bosniaks make up 80 per cent of the population, Serbs still make up the majority in the police and judiciary,” concludes Biševac.

While another election cycle is passing by, the issue of unblocking the economic development and political life of Sandžek Bosniaks remain. Rejection of ethnic prejudices and mutual borders seems to be one of the basic conditions, but this problem continues to show its tenaciousness.