Introduction / Definiton: 

Sandžak is the name given a region in Serbia and in Montenegro between the borders with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The name Sandžak is based on the Ottoman term sanjak for flag and region and refers to the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, a region within the Ottoman Empire. Sandžak today does not exist as an administrative region within Serbia or Montengro, but generally encompasses up to six municipalities in Serbia (Novi Pazar, Tutin, Sjenica, Prijepolje, Priboj, Nova Varoš) and six in Montenegro (Bijelo Polje, Rožaje, Plav, Pljevlja, Berane, Andrijevica). Sandžak overlaps with the region of Raška, which refers to the early Serb medieval state. Today the region is predominantly populated by Serbs, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Montenegrins. Bosniaks who constitute a regional majority have been seeking greater autonomy and minority rights, whereas Serbs and the governments in Belgrade and Podgorica have seen demands for regional autonomy as a prelude to possible secession. The independence of Montenegro in 2006 has divided the region and thwarted any project of regional autonomy of Sandzak.

With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the Muslim population of Sandžak found themselves separated from their ethnic kin in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During Yugoslav times, the regional center for Muslims has been Sarajevo. The repressive policies of Serbia and Montenegro under the dominance of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević during the 1990s lead to instances of ethnic cleansing and human rights violations of Muslims/Bosniaks in Sandzak. Bosniak political leaders have demanded both autonomy for the region and greater minority rights protection. Since the end of the Milosevic rule, Bosniaks have held increased power at the local level and cooperated with authorities in Serbia. In Montenegro, relations improved with the Djukanovic government initiating reforms in 1997 and breaking with the nationalist policies of Milosevic. Interethnic relations in the region, however, remain tense and the Bosniak majority is divided in terms of political aspirations and loyalty between Serbia and Montenegro. The region remains one of the most impoverished parts of both Montenegro and Serbia and finds itself in a peripheral position towards the capitals in Belgrade and Podgorica.

Historical Evolution: 

The Sandžak became part of Serbia and Montenegro only relatively late, in the context of the First Balkan War in 1912. Previously, the region was under Austro-Hungarian administration (1878-1908) and then briefly reverted to Ottoman rule. Linking Serbia to Montenegro and thus to the Adriatic, historically the region had great strategic significance for Serbia. With a Muslim population majority, Sandžak did not fit into the Serbian nation state easily during the interwar period. During World War II, parts of Sandžak came under Italian-dominated Montenegrin and Albanian rule, while other parts remained part of Serbia, albeit under German military rule. The partisan movement briefly entertained the idea of a regional autonomy in Sandžak, but in post-war Yugoslavia, the region was again divided between Serbia and Montenegro (Banac 1988, 101-2, 104-5). The Muslims of Yugoslavia were first recognized as a distinct nation in 1968, equal to Serbs and Montenegrins (Ramet 1992, 179). The majority of Yugoslav Muslims (8.9% of the total Yugoslav population in 1991), i.e. Slavic Serbo-Croatian speakers of Muslim religious and cultural background, were living in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Savezni zavod za statistiku, 1998).

With the collapse of Yugoslavia, Muslims were divided from their kin in Bosnia and Herzegovina and at first denied recognition by the newly formed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia composed of Serbia and Montenegro. With the beginning of the Bosnia war in 1992 and the policy of ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Serbs, especially directed against Muslims, interethnic relations in Sandzak worsened, including small-scale ethnic cleansing in the border region and discrimination against Muslims. In response, Muslim political parties, during the 1990s led by the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), the sister party of the dominant Muslim party in Bosnia and Herzegovina, called for autonomy of Sandzak, leaving the option of seceding from Serbia and Montenegro to join Bosnia theoretically open. In 1991 the Muslim National Council of Sandžak organized a referendum on autonomy. Although declared illegal by the state, a majority of Muslims appear to have voted in favor of a regional autonomy (Lyons 2008: 79). As a response, the SDA was briefly criminalized and Muslims were marginalized in Serbian politics until the fall of the semi-authoritarian Milosevic regime in 2000 and in Montenegro until the government of Milo Djukanovic broke with Serbia in 1997 and pursued a reformist path.

Since the democratization in Serbia and Montenegro, demands for autonomy in Sandzak have faded and instead demands focus on greater minority rights protection and more say in the running of the country and region.

The Bosniak community is divided. In 1993 a congress of Muslim intellectuals in Sarajevo adopted the name Bosniak to describe Muslims to emphasize the connection to Bosnia and to diminish the awkward link between religion and national identity. This switch has lead to a split within the community in Serbia and Montenegro with most accepting the new name and others rejecting it (Dimitrovova 2001). In the 2003 Montenegrin census, 7.8% of the population declared themselves to be Bosniaks, 4% Muslims (Zavod za statistiku 2004). In Serbia in 2002, 1.82% of the total population (without Kosovo) identified at Bosniaks, 0.26% as Muslims. In both countries, the share of Muslims is greater in areas where the community does not constitute a majority (Bijelo Polje and Prijepolje), whereas in the municipalities which are overwhelmingly Bosniak/Muslim (Tutin, Novi Pazar) the majority identifies as Bosniaks (Republički zavod za statistiku, 2002). The community is also divided into two countries. A majority of Montenegrin Bosniaks supported Montenegrin independence and vote for multiethnic mainstream parties (such as the governing Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS and the Socialdemocratic Party, SDP). In the Serbian part of Sandzak, Bosniak political parties enjoy most support from the electorate and opposed Montenegrin independence as this divided the region.
Serbs constitute the other big community in Sandzak. In Montenegro, since World War II most Orthodox citizens identified as Montenegrins. As the term ‘Montenegrin’ has become to be associated closely with supporters of Montenegrin independence since the mid-1990s, many in Sandzak identify as Serbs, signifying support for close ties to Serbia. In the 2006 independence referendum, a majority in three predominantly Serb populated Montenegrin municipalities in the Sandzak region voted against independence.

In addition to the Serb and Bosniak community, there are also smaller Roma and Albanian communities in Sandzak. Albanians constitute a significant share of the population only in the two Montenegrin municipalities Plav and Rozaje, whereas Roma live throughout the region in relatively small numbers.

International involvement in Sandzak has been minimal. During the 1990s, the Milosevic government opposed any significant international presence. The only notable international mission in Sandzak was the “CSCE Missions of Long Duration in Kosovo, Sandjak and Vojvodina”, established in 1992, but expelled in June 1993 by the Serbian authorities. Later OSCE Missions, established in Montenegro in 1998 and in Serbia in 2000 have been active in Sandzak, but considering the lower level of tensions, had a limited role.

Although Bosniaks constitute the largest group in Bosnia, it did not act as a kin-state, as the power-sharing arrangement prevents such policies. Nevertheless, the SDA in Serbia and a number of smaller Bosniak parties in Montenegro have been receiving support and maintained close ties to the SDA in Bosnia.

Resolution / Status: 

There has been no clear or concerted effort of Serbia or Montenegro to accommodate the demands of the Bosniak/Muslim population. Nevertheless, the democratization of the countries and the end of state-sponsored ethno-nationalism reduced tensions and there is little visible pressure to change the status of the region. Both countries have passed comprehensive, but flawed, minority laws, which arguably improved the status of Bosniaks/Muslims. In addition, Bosniak politicians have been holding high offices in both Serbia and Montenegro. Rasim Ljajic, leader of one of the key Bosniak parties in Serbia, the Sandzak Democratic Party (SDP), has been Minister for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia and Montenegro (2003-06) and Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Affairs since 2008. In 2009 Ljajic became president of the newly founded Socialdemocratic Party of Serbia (SDP). His main rival Sulejman Ugljanin has been also been a minister without portfolio since 2008. Several ministers and the deputy speaker of parliament in Montenegro have been from the Bosniak/Muslim community. The SDA has been promoting the idea of Sandzak as a region, but such ambitions neither seem likely to succeed nor has it prevented the SDA from cooperating closely with conservative parties in Serbia, such as the Democratic Party of Serbia. The primary source of tensions in recent years has not been between the majority and the minority, but within the Bosniak community. Intra-community conflicts contered on the political rivalry between Ljajić and Ugljanin, often expressing itself in pre-election violence, and between two competing heads of the Muslim community, Adem Zilkić and Muamer Zukorlić (International Crisis Group 2005, 16-26; Novosel 2007). The region remains economically underdeveloped, lacking in infrastructure and links to Belgrade or Podgorica. The limited economic prospects have lead to a significant outmigration to Turkey, Bosnia, Western Europe and North America (International Crisis Group 2005, 16).

Prospects / Analysis: 

Bosniak-Serb relations in Sandžak have been tense, but are unlikely to escalate. As Serbia and Montenegro have committed themselves to improved minority rights protection in the context of European integration, the primary state strategy has been enhanced minority rights, including limited minority cultural autonomy in Serbia and Montenegro. After some seven years of indirectly elected councils in Serbia, directly elected minority councils were established in 2010, but the results of the Bosniak council were annulled by the government reflecting the tense and highly divisive nature of politics in Sandžak (Politika 2010). In addition, decentralization and greater regional development initiatives have been set up, such as Serbian Law on Regional Development, to tackle the peripheral location of the region. The main tensions continue to be within the Bosniak community, focusing on the communities’ identity and the links to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro respectively.

References / Further Reading: 

Banac, Ivo. 1988. With Stalin Against Tito. Cominformist Splits in Yugoslav Communism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Dimitrovova, Bohdana. 2001. “Bosniak or Muslim? Dilemma of one Nation with two Names,” Southeast European Politics 2: 94-108.

International Crisis Group. 2005. Serbia’s Sandžak: Still Forgotten, Europe Report No.162, April.

Lyon, James. 2008. “Serbia’s Sandžak Under Milošević?: Identity, Nationalism and Survival,” Human Rights Review 9: 71-92.

Novosel, Sladjana. 2007. “A Society Divided.” Balkan Insight, 20 December.

Politika. 2010. “Novi izbori za Nacionalni savet Bošnjaka,” 10 July.

Ramet, Sabrina Petra. 1992. Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia, 1962-1991, 2nd ed. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Republički zavod za statistiku. 2002. “Konaćni resultati popisa 2002”, 52(295) Saopštenje (2002), 24 December.

Savezni zavod za statistiku, 1998, Popis 1991. CD-Rom, Belgrade.

Zavod za statistiku. 2004. “Vjeroispovest, maternji jezik i nacionalni ili etnička pripadnost prema starosti i polu. Popis 2003,” Podgorica, available at:

Working Papers

Helsinki Committee for Serbia. 2010. “Sandzak and European Prospects,” Helsinki Files 29, available at:

Huszka, Beata. 2007. “Decentralisation of Serbia: The Minority Dimension,” CEPS Policy Briefs, available at:

International Crisis Group. 2005. “Serbia’s Sandžak: Still Forgotten,” Europe Report162, April, available at:

International Crisis Group. 1998. “Sandzak: Calm for Now.” Europe Report 48, 9 November, available at:

König, Matthias. 2001. “The Situation of Minorities in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Towards an implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.” June. European Centre for Minority Issues, Working Paper 11, available at: