Conflict in Serbia

Serbia continues to grapple with the various legacies of the nineties, notably the collapse of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and, more recently, Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008.

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South Serbia

According to the 2002 census, the population of Presevo is 89.09% Albanian and 8.55% Serb, Bujanovac is 54.69% Albanian, 34.14% Serb and 8.93% Roma, whilst Medvedja is 26.17% Albanian and 66.57% Serb. Whilst significant progress has been made in establishing multi-ethnic local governments, forming joint Albanian-Serb police patrols and reducing the number of human rights abuses, more needs to be done to better integrate Albanians into public institutions and the judiciary and to reform the education system.

In an unofficial referendum 1992, an overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians in the Presevo Valley expressed their desire to join Kosovo. Following the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB), with support from Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), attacked police and army units. The Konculj Agreement of May 2001, engineered by the international community with NATO’s mediation, ended a 17-month armed insurgency by ethnic Albanians in which 100 people were killed and 12,500 Albanians fled. The terms of the Agreement included a pledge by the UCPMB to “demilitarise, demobilise, disarm and disband” in return for guarantees that their fighters would be amnestied, refugees allowed to return, a multi-ethnic police force formed and Albanians integrated into public institutions.

Since then, the Presevo Valley has been governed under the “Covic Plan”, whose four pillars seek to 1) eliminate threats to “state sovereignty” and “territorial integrity”; 2) provide security, freedom of movement and the right to return to the Presevo Valley; 3) develop a “multiethnic and multi-confessional society”; and 4) support economic and social development. The credibility of the Co-ordination Board, established to oversee implementation of the plan for an initial three-year period, has, however, been undermined by regular Albanian boycotts and a failure to deliver in specified areas. The establishment of functional institutional mechanisms to contend with Albanian grievances, such as those concerning education reform and the interior ministry’s paramilitary gendarmerie special units (despite the success of the multi-ethnic police force; an OSCE-led effort), remains imperative, particularly as donor interest continues to wain and Belgrade pushes to transfer the CB’s competencies to government institutions.

One of the biggest problems facing the Valley is massive unemployment, estimated at around 60% in Presevo and 42% in Bujanovac; though these estimates are clouded by the existence of a large informal sector and idle socially-owned enterprises in which many are still listed as being employed. Instability in the valley and poor infrastructure has discouraged investment, though sources of optimism exist with the construction of a new customs zone at the border crossing with Macedonia inside Presevo municipality and the eventual completion of Serbia’s stretch of the Corridor 10 motorway that connects Thessaloniki to Belgrade.

The region has, however, since the end of the insurgency, been largely dependent upon donor support, which provided 45% of the total investment in both Bujanovac and Presevo between 2000-2005, as well as 17% in Medvedja, but which have been in decline ever since. Investment by the Serbian government, meanwhile, has tended to favour Serb-majority municipality, with Bujanovac receiving €36 per capita, Presevo €91 and Medvedja €199 in 2006-2007. Decades of institutionalised discrimination are now creating reverse discrimination, whilst persistent population outflows continue to impact the region. Both Presevo and Bujanovac rely on the remittances of guest workers.

Ethnic Albanian politicians in the Presevo Valley remain divided over the extent of their co-operation with Serbian institutions. The new rules permitting minority parties to avoid the five per cent threshold in parliamentary elections has, however, facilitated the participation of Albanian politicians at the national level. In January 2006, Albanian assembly members reached consensus on the issue of greater territorial autonomy for Albanians in southern Serbia. By often referring to region as “East Kosovo”, Albanian politicians draw an implicit link between Serb-inhabited territory north of the River Ibar in Kosovo and the future of southern Serbia. As such, the de facto partitioning of Kosovo could encourage Kosovo Albanians and ethnic Albanians in Southern Serbia to seek “the unification of the Presevo Valley with Kosovo”.

The plight of Kosovo Serbs, particularly those living in enclaves south of the River Ibar, has direct and indirect implications for Albanians living in Southern Serbia. Any instability in southern Serbia could have damaging spill-over effects not only in Kosovo, but also in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – as was the case during the 2001 crisis and the September 2003 clashes in the northern Macedonian town of Vaksince – further heightening inter-ethnic tension and putting greater pressure of the Ohrid Agreement that ended the Albanian insurgency.


Sandžak is a multi-ethnic region, bordering Kosovo to the south-east and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west, which contains the single largest Bosniak community in the Balkans outside Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sandžak remains vulnerable to both inter- and intra-ethnic disputes, though the latter remains more problematic at present.

Sandžak is composed of eleven municipalities – six in Serbia (Novi Pazar, Sjenica, Tutin, Nova Varos, Prijepolje and Priboj), and five in Montenegro (Bijelo Polje, Rozaje, Plave, Plevlje, Berane). According to the 2002 census, the six municipalities in Serbia have a population of 235,567 inhabitants, of which 142,350 (60 per cent) declared themselves Bosniaks and 90,314 as either Serbs or Montenegrins (38 per cent). In the municipalities of Novi Pazar (76.28%), Tutin (94.23%) and Sjenica (73.34%), Bosniaks are the majority population, whilst they are a minority in Nova Varos (7%), Priboj (23%) and Prijepolje (41%).

Like elsewhere in Serbia, Sandžak faces the typical problems of economic decline, corruption, organised crime and dysfunctional institutions. Economically, Sandžak remains under-developed, particularly in terms of infrastructure, and amongst the poorest regions in the country. There is widespread unemployment, whilst annual incomes per capita, especially in Bosniak majority municipalities, are well below the national average. Almost half of all economic activity takes place outside of legal channels. As a result, emigration from the region continues and a majority of young people want to leave. Given Sandžak’s relatively small aid absorption capacity, more needs to be done to support Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) by streamlining regulations, taxes and other bureaucratic obstacles. The strength of Novi Pazar’s textile industry, for instance, provides one source of optimism, though many private factories are either idle or functioning at reduced capacity.

The two main political parties in Sandžak are the Sandžak Democratic Party (SDP), led by Rasim Ljajic, and the Party of Democratic Action of Sandžak (SDA), led by Sulejman Ugljanin. Previously co-founders of a local branch of the SDA in the 1990s, the two split in the mid-1990s. Whilst Ljajic has regularly strove to democratise Sandžak and promote Bosniak participation in Serbian cultural and political life, Ugljanin has remained committed to regional autonomy for Sandzak – similar to that enjoyed by Vojvodina – and has proclaimed the notion of an “historic Sandžak”. Such autonomy is opposed by Serbs in the three western Serbian-majority Sandžak municipalities and by many Bosniaks, who have become increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of attention paid to issues such as corruption. These factors faciliate the establishment of coalitions between Serb and Bosniak politicians.

In terms of political representation, a new Law on National Minorities in 2002 legalised the Bosniak National Council of Sandžak (BNVS), previously the Muslim National Council of Sandžak (MNVS), and made it the highest organ of the Bosniak national minority inside Serbia. In 1991, the MNVS adopted a “Memorandum on the Special Status of Sandžak” which outlined notions of devolution and regional organization for Bosniaks in Sandžak. In a referendum organized by the MNVS between 25 and 27 October 1991, 98.90% supported political autonomy.

Sandžak remains vulnerable to both inter- and intra-ethnic disputes, though the latter remains more problematic at present. The concurrent threat to Serb rights in Bosniak majority areas compounds such problems. Reassertions of national identity and presence by both communities, particularly with respect to religion and language, threaten to prompt future antagonism. Whilst there is little imminent danger of ethnically-motivated conflict, further steps are necessary to tackle the region’s problems, particularly with respect of discrimination and economic degradation. More also needs to be done to promote refugee return, particularly in Priboj municipality. Failure to eradicate such grievances will leave Sandžak marginalised, isolated and increasingly unstable.

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