Divide and Rule: The Rise and Rise of a Bosniak Strongman in Serbia

With an election in June, former Grand Mufti Muamer Zukorlic has landed a powerful blow in the fight for ascendancy in Serbia’s mainly Muslim Sandzak region. Observers, however, say he is being used by the Serbian government.

In cementing the power of Serbia’s ruling conservatives, the country’s June election arguably changed little at the national level. But in the mainly Muslim Sandzak region, it changed a lot.

The victory of the Justice and Conciliation Party, SPP, in the southwestern Sandzak region – at the expense of the oldest Bosniak party, the Sandzak Democratic Action Party, otherwise known as SDA Sandzak, and the Sandzak Democratic Party, SDP – has elevated its leader, former Grand Mufti Muamer Zukorlic, to new heights, tipping the scales in a long-running power struggle in the region.

Experts see Zukorlic’s appointment as deputy speaker of the Serbian parliament in Belgrade as confirmation of his unspoken collaboration with the ruling Progressive Party – evident, they say, in the apparent protection he enjoys from efforts to oust him from the Bosniak National Council, BNV, the ethnic minority’s highest representative body.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, leader of the Progressives, “wants to control the power game in the Sandzak and he has Zukorlic to do it,” said Maja Bjelos, a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies.

“There is a trade-off going on between Zukorlic and Vucic and the BNV issue and his new appointment as deputy speaker of parliament are examples of this.”

‘Political message’

Appointed grand mufti in 1993 aged just 23, Zukorlic stayed in the post for 14 years but is still seen as calling the shots at the Islamic Community in Serbia, one of two rival Islamic communities in the Sandzak. He formally entered politics in 2010 and has built up a small empire of NGOs, businesses and media outlets that give him great sway over Sandzak society.

The BNV, however, accuses him of repeatedly failing to attend Council meetings and says that, by law, he should be replaced. But the Serbian Electoral Commission is blocking his replacement.

On December 17, the Commission approved replacements for two members of the BNV who had died, but was silent on Zukorlic.

“The Electoral Commission is directly endangering the decision-making process in the BNV and disrupting the electoral will of Bosniaks in Serbia,” BNV President Jasmina Guric said in a written response to BIRN. The Serbian Electoral Commission did not respond to a request for comment.

The BNV is currently controlled by the SDA Sandzak thanks to its alliance with the SDP. Observers see the row as part of a long-standing policy by Belgrade to favour one Bosniak politician over another in an effort to control them all.

“If a simple administrative procedure becomes a long-running crisis it means that the government is sending a political message,” said Medin Halilovic, a journalist in Novi Pazar, seat of the Sandzak region that straddles the border between Serbia and neighbouring Montenegro.

“Zukorlic has been trying to get closer to the central government for a long time and he has been openly supporting the government,” Halilovic told BIRN. “Finally, he became the part of the government when he was elected deputy speaker of the Serbian National Assembly.”

Halilovic compared Zukorlic’s role to that of Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

“Both control local politics with the help of the central government,” he said. “The Serbian government always picks one politician and uses him or her in its best interests. Zukorlic is the last example of this strategy.”

Bjelos said that in the Sandzak region Vucic was continuing a policy of “divide and rule” pursued by successive governments in Belgrade since the 1990s.

“The division of Bosniaks into two Islamic communities and three Bosniak parties has become a role model for dividing and controlling other minorities in Serbia,” she told BIRN.

“The Serbian central government is powerful enough to enforce the law and rules. If it does not do this, we should look at the message behind this. We have seen this many times that Zukorlic benefitted from the central government’s protection.”

SPP: ‘We’re not in government’

Zukorlic’s SPP, which holds four seats in the Serbian parliament, denies being in coalition with the Progressive Party, SNS.

“We are not part of the government and we do not have a coalition with the ruling SNS party but we agreed with SNS that we will be partners in the national assembly and stay independent,” said SPP General Secretary Edin Djerlek.

Zukorlic’s new role as deputy speaker of parliament is simply a reflection of the fact the SPP doubled its representation in the assembly, he said, adding that the party would also likely take a number of other posts in ministries and state institutions.

“Our ideology and programme are different from the ruling SNS. We will be independent; in terms that we will support what is good and supportive for people in Sandzak and generally in Serbia,” Djerlek told BIRN. “However, we will not support policies which are not good for people in Sandzak and people in Serbia.”

Djerlek dismissed the BNV claims that Zukorlic did not attend any of the six Council meetings held since November 2018, saying he had in fact only missed two or three “because other meetings were held in secret and we were not invited.”

“Some BNV meetings are held in secret and they use it to exclude Zukorlic,” he said.

“There is no publicity and there are no media in BNV sessions. We and people in Sandzak do not know what is happening at the BNV.”

Were Zukorlic a government collaborator, “you would see this in his speeches and public arguments,” Djerlek told BIRN. “When he speaks in parliament and media, he never praises the ruling SNS or the government.”

But Halilovic, the Novi Pazar journalist, took a different view.

“You can see Zukorlic on national TV channels every day. The pro-government media support him and, in return, he supports the policies of the government,” he said.

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