Overwhelmed by cheap Chinese competition and divided by rival Muslim groups, Serbia’s once-thriving Sandzak region is languishing in a deep economic and social malaise that has sparked the first calls for autonomy.
The remote area tucked between Kosovo and Montenegro was once the center of the Balkans’ black-market textile industry, with factories churning out high-quality replicas of brand-name jeans and shoes to hungry local markets squeezed by sanctions.
However, today its main city of Novi Pazar is a picture of decline, with many factories standing idle and more than 50 percent of the population — estimated at 400,000 to 500,000 — is unemployed, local officials said.
Teenagers hang around in the city’s main square with little to do.
Most are glum about their future prospects and complain about politicians who promise more than they deliver and “muftis who drive around in BMWs or SUVs.”
“My impression is that everything is at a stand-still,” said a woman in her 40s, who gave her name as Azra.
“This is a catastrophe. All most young people think about is going abroad. Some have turned to drugs,” she said.
Much of the economic malaise is put down to the lifting of economic sanctions following the ouster of ormer Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, which allowed cheap Chinese and Turkish imports to compete with local products.
In the 90s as ethnic wars raged in Bosnia and Croatia following the breakup of the old Yugoslav federation, the Sandzak region carved out a profitable niche supplying black-market goods for Serbia and Montenegro, which were under international sanctions for fueling the fighting.
Now, business leaders are pinning their hopes on the European market, with Serbia working to obtain EU candidate status next year.
“Our principal trump card is that we are in Europe. We can make smaller batches and export quickly,” said Tigrin Kacar, who is a local businessman.
However, the economic crisis has fanned internal tensions in the predominantly Muslim Sandzak region — which borders Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 in a move not recognized by Belgrade.
In recent years, a bitter battle has been waged for influence among Sandzak’s Muslim religious community, stoked by two rival muftis. So far incidents have been minor, mainly skirmishes over rival property claims.
On one side of the divide is a group led by Adem Zilkic, which is based in the capital Belgrade and recognized by the Serbian government as the official interlocutor for the country’s Muslims.
However, his influence is being undercut by the mufti of Novi Pazar, Muamer Zukorlic, who accuses his rival of kowtowing to Belgrade and who set up a rival organization in 2007.
Zukorlic recognizes the spiritual authority of Mustafa Ceric, the mufti of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which was the center of the former Yugoslavia’s scattered Muslim community before the bloody break-up in the 90s.
In recent weeks, Zukorlic has called for autonomy for the Sandzak region, saying that the “Bosniaks [Muslims of Slav origin] are the only people of Europe who do not have their own exclusive state.”
“We are asking that Serbia give us a degree of sovereignty, within the framework of constitutional order,” Zukorlic said, adding that this initiative “does not mean ethnic autonomy, but autonomy for a multi-ethnic region,” with a Serb minority.
This is a “test of mutual confidence between the Serb authorities and the Bosniaks,” but “Serb authorities are showing no confidence, not granting us the slightest degree of autonomy,” he said.
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