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Monday, 3 March 2014

The Lost Sandžak: The forgotten region of Serbia and Montenegro

David Madden (Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

On 10 February, Kenneth Morrison and Elizabeth Roberts gave a seminar at SEESOX with the above title, to mark the appearance of their book “The Sandzak: A History”. David Madden chaired. Kenneth set the scene for the undertaking: the first detailed history written in English. Since the Sandzak was not a state or autonomous entity, it had no archives. It was terra incognita: but a unique political and cultural space.

Elizabeth set out the history up to 1918. The Sandžak was a small region with changing borders and regular population shift. There was a mixed Orthodox/Moslem population (currently roughly 32%/60%). Its network of interconnecting river valleys made it a transit route (for trade, travel, and armies) though the mountains. These factors brought wealth at times but also misery e.g. during the Ottoman/Hapsburg wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. One constant was that this small wedge of territory provided a vital connecting corridor between Istanbul and the frontier provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while for Vienna it stood in the way of the coming together of Serbia and Montenegro. The Sandžak gained heightened importance, and attracted increased outside attention in the period between the 1878 Congress of Berlin and the 1912/1913 Balkan Wars. Austria-Hungary, having occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina under the terms of the Berlin Treaty, chose merely to garrison the Sandžak while leaving it under Ottoman administration. When Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 they sought to blunt international protests at Vienna’s expansionism by withdrawing their garrisons from the Sandžak, allowing the territory to revert to full Ottoman control. At the same time the Austrian Foreign Minister, Alois von Aehrenthal, was able to allay the misgivings of the military hawks over the Ottomans’ inability to resist Serbian and Montenegrin aggrandisement by arguing that Vienna should focus on subjugating Serbia rather than seeking to bolster their presence in the Sandžak. Ironically Vienna’s decision, which took no account of continuing Ottoman decline, allowed Serbia and Montenegro to gain a common border when they defeated the Ottomans in the ensuing Balkan War of 1912. One of the cardinal principles of Austria-Hungary’s policy in the Balkans had been undermined; Serbian nationalism had been strengthened rather than tamed.

Kenneth then took up the story. He discussed the Sandzak’s status during the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) and during the Second World War. With regard to the latter, he described the German and Italian occupation, the conflict in the Sandzak between the Partisans, Chetniks, Balists and local militias and the establishment of ZAVNOS, the leadership of which hoped to establish a Sandzak republic in a future Yugoslav state, an idea largely opposed by many Montenegrin and Serbian communists. He commented how the ZAVNOS period represented an important historical justification for more recent advocates of autonomy. Kenneth then embarked upon a brief discussion of political, social and economic developments in the Sandzak during the period of the existence of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia before addressing the re-emergence of the “Sandzak Question” and the quest for autonomy in the early 1990s. Kenneth set out the tensions in the Sandzak during this period and the political dynamics which impacted upon the region, particularly the intra-Muslim/Bosniak conflicts, personified by the political rivalry between Sulejman Ugljanin and Rasim Ljajic. He went on to examine the struggle between the Islamic Community of Serbia and the Meshihat of Sandzak before finishing by describing the current political, economic and social context in the Sandzak, again highlighting the ongoing conflict between the Islamic Communities, the state of inter-ethnic tensions and the salient social problems which continue to characterise life in the Sandzak. He concluded by saying that there were significant differences between the Serbian and Montenegrin Sandzak, and that many of the current political conflicts were more common in the former as opposed to the latter.

In the ensuing discussion, the two authors discussed the role of the Sandzak diaspora and the historical migrations that had ensued since 1878. They also discussed the role of the EU, that of Turkey and of the potential for the economic development of the region. Both authors stressed the significant potential for development of tourism in what was a region of great natural beauty, and added that appropriate infrastructural development could help to improve the overall situation. They acknowledged, however, that investment in the region was unlikely while there was continuing political instability. The authors also highlighted the differences between the Montenegrin and Serbian Sandzak, and discussed the political differentiations between the two. Overall, there was a feeling that the Sandzak was neglected: no longer perceived as a big problem, and with diminished strategic significance, but a territory with its share of unresolved problems that had to be resolved in order for the region to emerge from its current economic position.

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