People in Novi Pazar, the chaotic unofficial capital of Sandžak complain they get little in the way of jobs, investment or respect from Belgrade.
Novi Pazar is sometimes decried by Serbs allegedly as a hotbed of radical Islam and the area has long been known as a key stop on the smuggling routes that crisscross the Balkans. Young Bosniaks — the Muslim ethnic group that predominates in the city — talk of feeling isolated and disparaged by Serbian society.
Sandžak, the Muslim-majority region now is part of two independent countries, Serbia and Montenegro, and borders two more, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. However, it lies mostly inside Serbia.
According to a witness, there has been no conflict in this area, but if you have any mention of Novi Pazar on the news, it’s negative. “Sandžak is the black sheep of Serbia,” said Dženan Hajrović, 31, a graphic designer and co-founder of Heroj (“Heroes”), a fashionable coffee shop and social enterprise not far from Novi Pazar’s Ottoman old town.
Sandžak has longed, at various times in its history, to have more control over its own affairs. In October 1991, as Yugoslavia began to fracture, just shy of 99 percent of voters supported political autonomy in an unofficial referendum. Serbian authorities declared the vote unconstitutional.
There were other shy attempts too of gaining autonomy, but there was also fear of getting crushed.
“Any independence attempts in Sandžak would have probably been quickly quashed in blood in Serbia, where Bosniak communities were completely surrounded by Serb-populated communities and most communication with Bosnia was severed,” said Srećko Latal, a political analyst based in Sarajevo.
Hajrović and his colleagues are working to shift perceptions of their hometown. They have painted colorful murals and shot videos of those they see as Novi Pazar’s heroes.
“There are a lot of problems here. The system isn’t working. There is a lot of corruption. We are fighting to build a network of heroes because we really need them,” said architect Tarik Brunčević, 27, who returned to Novi Pazar after living in Germany and Sarajevo.
Built in the 15th century, Novi Pazar was a bustling trading post on the Ottoman route into the Balkans. Sandžak used to be in the center of trade routes. With the fall of Yugoslavia we became a border area between Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia.
Earlier this year, over 4,000 people signed a petition calling for Sandžak to be declared a cross-border region similar to others in the European Union. That would allow Sandžak to bid for EU funds as a single region.
“The people here want to be part of Serbia, they want to be citizens of Serbia but the Bosniak majority want to have a feeling that they are being recognized as citizens of Serbia and that their rights are being respected,” said a veteran representative of the international community based in Novi Pazar.