NOVI PAZAR, Serbia – Nermin Crnobrsanin is visibly proud of the hundreds of counterfeit Levi’s jeans his home factory produces every day. The manager of a sweatshop on the outskirts of this dusty town in southern Serbia, Mr. Crnobrsanin shows off stacks of replicated jeans with tags verifying their authenticity.
“Here we make better Levi’s than the guys in San Francisco,” Crnobrsanin shouts over the din of 25 clattering sewing machines. “The only problem is to find an original and copy it.”
Some 500 similar textile factories, most located in private houses, are driving the local economy of Novi Pazar, the cultural capital of rump Yugoslavia’s tiny Muslim minority. Here in the Sanjak region, laborers can find work at the relatively high starting wage of $200 per month.
But despite the modest prosperity of this bustling provincial town, nearly 20 percent of Sanjak’s 230,000 Muslims have turned their backs on the region.
Many tried to go to Western Europe, but since the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, Muslim emigrants are heading for Bosnia. Calling themselves victims of “soft” ethnic cleansing, many Muslims would prefer to start anew in the rubble of Bosnia rather than face discrimination at home.
“People don’t feel like it’s their own country any more. They don’t feel safe,” says Rasim Ljajic, a local Muslim politician. Mr. Ljajic, who continues to preach tolerance in an increasingly polarized society, points to the results of Serbia’s recent parliamentary elections, in which extremist Muslim and Serbian parties won the most votes in Sanjak.
Before ethnic hatred ripped apart the former Yugoslavia, Sanjak was a contiguous cultural region of Bosnia. But when war broke out across the border in 1992, the Sanjak Muslims, who call themselves Bosniaks, found themselves in an isolated region of Serbia and Montenegro, the two republics constituting rump Yugoslavia.
Belgrade’s repression of Sanjak Muslims began with a show of force. Serb tanks crouched on the hills overlooking Novi Pazar, while irregular soldiers roamed the narrow streets. Ljajic says once the war in Bosnia began, the Yugoslav Federal Army and paramilitary forces tried to establish a 20-mile-wide “ethnically clean” buffer zone to sever all connections between Muslims in Sanjak and Bosnia.
By means of murder, abduction, and arson, Serb forces unleashed a campaign of terror against the Muslim population. The Sanjak branch of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has well-documented records of 34 killings, 131 kidnappings, and 18 armed attacks between 1991 and 1995.
After the signing of the Dayton accords, the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic changed tactics: While the constitution had already denied Muslims their status as a constituent nationality, new plans for the country’s economic development completely bypassed Sanjak. Regional health-care clinics were closed and Muslims were expelled from local police forces and schools.
“You can tell that Milosevic never gave up the idea of an ethnically clean Serbia,” says Sefko Alomerovic, head of the Helsinki Committee in Novi Pazar.
In the face of repression, Sanjak’s Muslim community has been unable to muster any viable political opposition. The region’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which grew out of the same party as Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic’s SDA, is split into six factions. The most prominent Muslim politician, Sulejman Ugljanin, has won popularity through secessionist rhetoric.
Analysts say the Belgrade government uses Mr. Ugljanin as a fig leaf when criticized for its minority policies. At the same time, Ugljanin’s extremist positions frighten the local Serbs. “The Milosevic regime has used his statements in fighting Muslims with propaganda,” says Ljajic, who leads a moderate, Western-oriented splinter group of the SDA.
Last July, Mr. Milosevic replaced the legally elected Muslim city council in Novi Pazar with members of his Socialist Party, claiming that the local government was purging non-SDA members.
“On first impression, people seem to be going about their business,” says Ljajic. “At the level of the common people, there is no conflict only because there’s an equilibrium of fear.” The atmosphere is eerily reminiscent of the time leading up to the war in Bosnia, when growing mistrust split the republic’s multiethnic society.
Saban Sarenkapic, editor in chief of the independent weekly “Has,” says that in Sanjak, “life can’t be divided into Serbian or Muslim halves, but that’s exactly what the nationalist parties are doing.” The potential for violence is low, however, given the strength of the Serbian military and the dwindling size of the Sanjak Muslim population.
As long as Belgrade keeps up its low level pressure on Muslims, they will continue to leave Sanjak on their own. Muslim leaders in Novi Pazar say stopping the exodus to Bosnia and attracting the attention of the international community should be the first steps in reversing the trend.
But with growing political unrest elsewhere in rump Yugoslavia and no prospects for long term economic growth, there is little reason for Muslims to see any future in Sanjak.