Future Pogroms in Serbia?

Serb terror against Bosnia's Muslims may spread to Muslims in Serbia - in Kosovo province and Sanjak - if not halted by the world community

By , George Zarycky specializes on Central Europe at Freedom House, a New York organization monitoring political rights and civil liberties worldwide.

LAST week's withdrawal of United Nations and European Community (EC) monitors from war-torn Bosnia, and the recent formation of a rump Yugoslavia by Serbia and Montenegro, have placed the region's 4.4 million Muslims in an increasingly perilous position. Secret negotiations between Bosnian Serbs and Croats this month may yet lead to a partition of Bosnia, leaving 1.8 million Bosnian Muslims isolated and without a homeland.

Bloodshed could spread to Muslim areas in Serbia itself, notably in Sanjak, an area in south Serbia that is home to 200,000 Muslims, and in Kosovo, a formerly autonomous region forcibly joined to Serbia in 1988, where ethnic Albanians are 90 percent of a 2 million population.

Muslims in Sanjak are especially vulnerable. Co-administered by Serbia and Montenegro since 1912 and with close cultural links to Bosnian Muslims, Sanjak Muslims have a history of violent persecution. In 1924, 25,000 were massacred by Serbs and Montenegrins. In World War II, 30,000 perished at the hands of the Chetniks, ultranationalist Serbs. Under the communists, thousands were executed.

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Today, Sanjak Muslims face discrimination in housing, employment, and education. Mosques have been demolished, and Muslim history expunged from school curricula. Serbs and Montenegrins, though 43 percent of the population, control most municipal and regional posts. In 1991, the US State Department's annual human rights report cited abuses in Sanjak, including the disappearance of six Muslim draft resisters.

Even before the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army and Serbian irregulars moved to squelch Bosnia's independence, Sanjak's Muslim leaders expressed concern that Serbia's earlier victories in Croatia would encourage Serbian expansionism and fuel anti-Muslim fervor.

In January, a delegation led by Dr. Sulejman Ugljanin, president of the Muslim National Council of Sanjak and a member of the Serbian parliament for the Party of Democratic Action, met with human rights groups in the US and documented scores of abuses against Muslims by Serbian and Montenegrin reservists, including beatings and arrests of local leaders, the suppression of religious freedom, and the murder of more than a dozen civilians in 1990-91. Dr. Ugljanin appealed for the EC and the Conference on Se curity and Cooperation in Europe to send monitors to the region due to fears of a violent crackdown.

These fears were justified. On its return, the delegation was detained by Serbian authorities. Serbian and Montenegrin forces in Sanjak now number 8,000, and there has been an upsurge in anti-Muslim violence. With mounting Serbian atrocities against Muslim civilians in neighboring Bosnia, Sanjak Muslims are terrified of a pogrom. The pro-government Serbian press has also stepped up attacks on Muslims. Radio Belgrade recently accused Dr. Ugljanin of trying to secure arms and Turkish military intervention during a trip to Ankara, an allegation he has denied. And the official Tanjung press service has charged Libya, and Muslim fundamentalists, with financing a secret Muslim organization whose aim is the creation of an Islamic state in Bosnia, Sanjak, and Kosovo - an absurdity.

The situation in Kosovo is more explosive. Since Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic annexed the region in 1990, repression against the Albanian majority has been systemic. Parliament was abolished and its leaders arrested last year. Kosovo Albanians held an underground referendum and a clandestine legislative vote in favor of independence. Tensions are high as Kosovo prepares for multiparty elections later this month in spite of Serbia's declaration that the vote is illegal. A May 1 broadcast on Sloven ian radio reported the Yugoslav military forces were concentrating in several parts of Kosovo, especially along the border with Macedonia and Albania. The Army is distributing arms to Serb and Montenegrin civilians.

The fate of Sanjak Muslims and the Muslim Albanians in Kosovo goes well beyond human rights concerns. The prospects of a full-blown conflagration in these territories has regional and international implications. At the very least, it would lead to a bloody civil war in Serbia between Muslims and Slavs. Any widescale campaign against Muslims in what was part of the former Ottoman Empire would certainly inflame passions in Turkey and possibly in Bulgaria, which has a large Turkish minority. Uprisings in Ko sovo would further aggravate existing friction between Serbia and Albania, whose border guards exchanged gunfire on several occasions last year.

The ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia presents the most dangerous crisis in post-communist Europe. The withdrawal of UN and EC monitors will only encourage Serbian hegemony and increase the prospects of anti-Muslim violence. As a political solution grows more remote, the West - rather than disengage - must be prepared to consider more strident punitive steps to discourage further aggression, including a full embargo to cut off the flow of goods and arms, complete diplomatic isolation, and the pos sible use of a multinational UN or NATO peacekeeping force. Western foot-dragging over the last two years allowed the situation in Yugoslavia to deteriorate to the point where the largest war in Europe since World War II will likely escalate.

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