Sandžak comes out of the tunnel

It serves as a bogeyman, to scare everyone around it, it is only talked about as a time bomb that can be activated at some point, either from the outside or from the inside. For three decades, Sandžak has been a space that is thought and spoken about only as a question of security, very rarely about its economy and development, and almost never about the daily problems of its people, their plans and needs. How many times have we heard that “Sandžak is the next”, the threat that the illegal secession of Kosovo from Serbia did not put an end to the disintegration of the country? In every foreign analysis of the Balkans in the last few decades, this part of Serbia is described only as “peaceful but unstable”, and their authors and transcribers make no effort to go at least one step further and mention at least a word about the Sandžak economy, let alone rich cultural heritage.

This image of Sandžak does not suit anyone. It does not suit Serbia, because it is often forced to defend itself from this perception of a part of its community, economically underdeveloped, where interethnic relations are strained, and the maximum expectation is that peace will be maintained. It especially does not suit the inhabitants of Sandžak, of any nationality, because everyone will rather ask them -are you safe or endangered, than how are you doing at work or schooling.

However, it suits someone that Sandžak will forever remain an “area with special needs”, a security risk zone for which different rules must apply, and especially the image of the victim and the poor. The struggle for political supremacy in Sandžak in the last 30 years has not been a struggle for its development. It was a struggle for the exclusive right to govern this region, as a hostage to the trade interests of its local leaders. As it is today and as it has been in the last 30 years, Sandžak is the subject of internal wars of conquest, it is a prey that gives the winner an important blackmail capital in front of Belgrade. It allows the conqueror to seek state privileges, because otherwise “anything is possible.”

This simple game with and around Sandžak lasts too long, but so far it has always succeeded. The spoils moved, sometimes even divided, only between three unparalleled Sandžak leaders – Sulejman Ugljanin, Rasim Ljajić and Muamer Zukorlić. Only they have ruled Sandžak for the past three decades, and it is only thanks to them that this region has not changed its image for decades – a poor, security unstable zone, where ethnic tensions do not allow it to move forward. That image was their ticket to the high state functions and the influence they bring with them, while nothing was given back to Sandžak and its people. And why would it? There is no need to change the strategy that brings results to the big three.

As much as the scenes with chauvinistic savagery at the match between Novi Pazar and Partizan did not surprise, because we have been watching them for years, the reaction of President Vučić to those events could have been surprising. We say – “could have been surprising”, because his comment that this is an “outpouring of real emotions” and that “we, Serbs, should ask ourselves why some Bosniaks want bad things for Serbia” speaks of a completely different strategy of the Belgrade leadership towards Sandžak in relation to everything we have seen in recent decades. And not only that, Vučić’s thoughtful reaction to the fans’ behavior, is only a part of his completely new approach to this region, and that approach has been going on for years, and is often underestimated.

Vučić is changing the complete Sandžak story, the one we have already seen and in which only the names of local masters are changing. Step by step. He knows very well that Sandžak will become something else only if it integrates economically and socially and if the first association to this region ceases to be security and becomes a quality of everyday life. Sometimes he does it with messages, like this one about the rage of “fans”, sometimes with gestures, like when he came to the Pešter village of Buče during the June military exercise, talked to the locals and gave a personal donation for the mosque that has been under construction for nine years. And the Sandžak image of the “bad guy” is changing the most by forcing investments in that area, in changing its economic position on the map of Serbia and the nearest neighborhood. That is why the highway to Montenegro will pass through the undeveloped part of the otherwise undeveloped Sandžak, that is why, with the support of the Emirates, the Novi Pazar hospital received the most modern diagnostic center, and with the support of Turkey, new regional roads. The change of Sandžak and its previous image happens even when it is not mentioned directly. A huge change for the region will be brought by the construction of the highway to Sarajevo, on which people from Sandžak will directly merge and halve their trip to the capital of B&H for two and a half – three hours. The new highway will halve the drive to Belgrade, also for two and a half hours. It will be easier for them to get to the two capitals they travel to most often, but more importantly, they will bring their cities, businesses, tourism and transit closer to the people of Sarajevo and Belgrade. Vučić is the first Serbian leader who correctly concluded that the problems of the people in Sandžak are no different from the problems they have anywhere else in Serbia. And that a national, not a local, approach must be applied to address them. Being poor in Sjenica is the same as being poor in Trgovište or Bela Palanka, and the answer to that poverty must be the same – better infrastructure, which brings employment, better health and education, a more comfortable life. That is the only way for the final de-securitization of Sandžak, for its turn from a security risk to a place desirable for life. Vučić’s endeavor in that direction is largely underway, he will encounter occasional resistance, as is the case with the recent match, but the outcome will be completely certain. Sandžak, or Raška district, will rise from the economic bottom of the Serbian regions (it is now third from the last in terms of GDP), and this growth legally leads to a decline in all other tensions, including national and religious, in which its people live for decades. The barons of its backwardness and security risk now have, for the first time, reason to worry about their spoils.