Vesti Sandzak Tense After Serbia Annuls Bosniak Council (15.07.2010.)

Belgrade’s clumsy attempt to stop a populist Muslim cleric from taking control of the new National Council of Bosniaks threatens to additionally radicalise the volatile region.

Supporters of a radical mufti in southwest Serbia have announced they will take their case before the Court of Human Rights after Belgrade annulled elections to an important new regional council.

Serbia’s minority rights minister declared the constituent session of the National Council for the country’s Bosniak community invalid on the grounds that not enough members had attended.

The ruling created fresh political turmoil in the mainly Bosniak Sandzak region, where followers of the mufti had claimed overwhelming victory in June 6 elections to the council.

At a rally on Wednesday in Novi Pazar, mufti Muamer Zukorlic called for Serbia’s President, Boris Tadic, and Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic to open talks “to solve the issue constitutionally”, urging them not to play with fire.

“Fire is not to be played with or we’ll have fire right up to the top of the house – and our house won’t be only one on fire,” he warned. Before the rally, the mufti’s party, the National Council of Bosniaks, called on the Minister for Human and Minority rights, Svetozar Ciplic, to resign.

Like other ethnic minorities in Serbia, Bosniaks obtained the right to establish a national council under legislation adopted last year.

The councils have no legislative authority but enjoy broad competences over use of symbols, cultural, educational and language matters as well as the right to access funds and set up their own media.

In the elections, Zukorlic’s Bosniak Cultural Community won 17 out of the 35 seats. The Bosniak Ticket, led by Sulejman Ugljanin, won 13 seats, while the Bosniak Rennaissance, led by Rasim Ljajic, won five. Both Ugljanin and Ljajic are currently ministers in the Serbian government.

Following the constituent session of the council on July 7 in Novi Pazar, Zukorlic announced that the council had been properly constituted since a majority of members had attended. This was after two members of the Bosniak Renaissance also attended the session, along with the mufti’s 17 supporters.

Delegates duly elected Mevlud Dudic, dean of the International University in Novi Pazar, as chair, Emir Elfic and Zehnija Bulic as deputy chairs and Samir Tandir as chair of the council’s executive committee.

However, the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights ruled the constituent session unsuccessful, called for new elections to the council and said a temporary body would be formed in the meantime, dominated by members of the old National Council of Bosniaks, in which Ugljanin’s Party of Democratic Action was the leading force.

In a further complication, on Tuesday, the assistant Minister for Human and Minority Rights, Petar Antic, suggested that the National Council could still be constituted without new elections if all the factions could establish consensus.

“The decision [to form an interim body] has not yet been issued because it is still possible that the three electoral lists may agree and form the National Council,” Antic said.

It was Antic who admitted last week in an interview to Belgrade’s B92 TV and radio that the rules on the council’s work had been changed one day before the constituent session.

Under the last-minute change, the council could only be considered constituted if two-thirds of the mandates of members were confirmed.

Councils for all other ethnic minorities in Serbia have already been formed, except for those of Bosniaks and Macedonians. Antic said the changes were made to the voting system on the Bosniak council “to provide stability”.

Antic chaired the first part of the constituent session, at which the Ministry for Human and Minority rights disputed the mandates of two members of the Bosniak Renaissance ticket, Zehnija Bulic and Hido Mustafic.

The mufti’s party has now announced that it will take the whole business to the Constitutional Court of Serbia and the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“President Tadic and the Minister of Human Rights Ciplic do not like to hear the voice of Bosniaks,” Samir Tandir told Balkan Insight.

“Using legal violence, they are trying to change the electoral will of citizens but we will defend it,” he added. “As far as we are concerned, the National Council has been formed.”

The Bosniak Cultural Community dismissed the idea of fresh elections, saying it intended to send a report to foreign embassies in Belgrade and Sarajevo on “the criminal activities of the Ministry for Human and Minority rights and on recent events concerning the council,” Tandir added.

Though a powerful figure in Novi Pazar, the mufti is not the only Muslim religious leader in Serbia. Since 2007, two Islamic communities have operated in the country.

The one led by mufti Zukorlic, the Islamic Community in Serbia, looks to Sarajevo. The Islamic Community of Serbia, led by the reis-ul-ulema, Adem Zilkic, has headquarters in Belgrade.
Many analysts viewed the elections to the Bosniak council as a de facto referendum over which Islamic community enjoys most popularity among Muslims in Serbia [see Balkan Insight: elections.]

With his harsh nationalist rhetoric, mufti Zukorlic managed to attract voters in the campaign who were dissatisfied by the unfulfilled promises of the former leading local politicians, emphasising such issues as the poor social position of Bosniaks.

He also made demands for the establishment of a Sandzak Academy of Science and Arts, though the creation of such a body would go beyond the jurisdiction of a minority national council.

Government officials, meanwhile, stick to the line that the first session of the National Council was unlawful because an insufficient number of members were present.

Analysts in the region warn that the situation has a potential to create fresh instability in Sandzak, saying the government’s action has given mufti Zukorlic new room for manoeuvre.

They fear the row over the council will be another obstacle to the stabilisation of a region already burdened with grave social problems.

After the deadline to constitute the National Council expired on July 9, minister Ciplic confirmed that the authorities would now call for new elections.

“By law, if the National Council is not constituted, a temporary body will be formed made up of members of the National Council's former convocation,” Ciplic told Balkan Insight.

Asked why the rules on the work of the council were changed at the last minute, Ciplic said the authorities wanted to clarify matters. “The law didn’t specify how many seats must be verified for the constitutive session to be successful,” he said. “In the case of the national parliament, 100 per cent of seats must be verified. We lowered the threshold [for the Bosniak council] to two-thirds”.

The minister claimed that mufti Zukorlic, who chaired the other part of the session, did not allow those present at the session to verify their mandates, so none of them officially took their seats, which is why the session was irregular.

For its part, the Bosniak Cultural Community contests that explanation as “the fabrications of a preschooler”.

“This is nonsense. One set of house rules was published on the website of the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and then at the session we were given another,” Samir Tandir said.

“Ours was the last council to be constituted, so that all the deadlines would expire and the Bosniak Cultural Community would not take over the council,” Tandir claimed.

Tandir said President Tadic and Minister Ciplic, both members of Serbia’s ruling Democratic Party, were continuing Serbia’s old policy of anti-Bosniak discrimination and persecution.

The government wanted to carry out “a silent genocide and assimilation of the Bosniaks in Serbia,” Tandir continued. “What the field Chetnik, [Ratko] Mladic failed to do in Srebrenica, the court Chetnik, Ciplic, is now trying to fix,” Tandir concluded, referring to Bosnian Serb general’s mass murder of Bosniaks in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.

A number of local human rights organisations have sent protest letters over recent events concerning the Bosniak National Council.

One is the Committee of Human Rights Lawyers, which just a week ago issued a public statement over mufti Zukorlic`s reaction to the publication of a photomontage in the newspaper Blic in which he was depicted wearing a priest’s robe with a Christian cross on his head.

After Blic published the photomontage on June 19, Zukorlic demanded an apology and compensation worth 100 million euros. The newspaper issued an apology two days after it published the picture, but the Islamic Community of Serbia remains adamant in its intention to sue the paper.

Milan Antonijevic, from the Committee of Human Rights Lawyers, said their reaction to the controversy over the Bosniak National Council was a matter of principle. All the country’s national councils were organised the same way and could be constituted if a simple majority of members attended, he said; it was not clear why this was not the case with the Bosniak National Council.

“The Ministry of Human and Minority Rights should not have interfered in the elections like this because it has created doubts about the impartiality of its actions and has failed to put itself into the position of an objective observer and create identical rules for all national councils,” Antonijevic told Balkan Insight.

He said the ministry bore most responsibility for turning the election for the National Council of Bosniaks into a political affair, which was causing a good deal of harm.

"Mufti Zukorlic did indeed make the issue of Bosniaks political in his campaign but the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights failed to counter this, did not explain the significance of national councils to people and instead, with political manoeuvres… has done much damage,” Antonijevic added.
If unrest and insecurity followed in Sandzak, the burden of responsibility for this would fall on Minister Ciplic, he went on.

Semiha Kacar, from the Sandzak Committee for Protection of Human Rights, agreed. The ministry had taken a selective and discriminatory approach in the case of the Bosniak council. “The fact that the house rules were changed on July 6 and that the change applied only to the National Council of Bosniaks confirms this,” she said. “The electoral will of citizens has been violated.”

Kacar said the row would additionally inflame an already sensitive situation in Sandzak. “I am afraid of increased tensions, which the mufti himself announced on a local television,” she said.

The mufti’s “announcement that he intends to set up parallel institutions [in Sandzak], is disturbing… mentioning examples from recent history in Kosovo, which do not suit us here at all,” Kacar added.

In Kosovo, during the last years of Serbian rule, ethnic Albanians largely withdrew from government institutions, setting up their own parallel schools, colleges, hospitals, unions, government ministries and parliament.

Journalist Slavka Bakracevic agreed that by hastily changing the house rules on the national council's work, the government had acted clumsily.

“Now we all expect the establishment of parallel institutions. If the government doesn’t do anything, we may expect a [tense] situation to last a long time,” she told Balkan Insight.

An incident on Monday, during the visit to Novi Pazar of the Turkish Prime Minister, Taip Erdogan, offered further proof that tensions were high in the region, she explained.

Police in Novi Pazar had to intervene to stop clashes from erupting between supporters of the two rival Islamic communities, as both sides greeted the arrival of the Turkish leader.

The Serbian press noted that Zukorlic was not present in the welcome committee on Monday, while
Erdogan was welcomed instead by the reis-ul-ulema, Adem Zilkic. Local authorities in Novi Pazar dissociated themselves from Zilkic`s presence at ceremony, saying he was not a member of welcome committee and that no cleric was invited to be there.

The local authority criticized a “police failure” for letting Zilkic and a party of ten imams in clerical dress to join the crowd on the square, Serbia’s official Tanjug news agency reported.

Semiha Kacar said it was now up to the ministry to make the next move concerning the council, as they were most responsible for the newly emerging situation.

“It is quite tense here and if the ministry sticks to organising new elections, I am afraid Zukorlic will call on people to boycott them,” she said, stressing that the electoral will of the citizens should have been respected.

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