Votes for the party increased by 15 per cent and the SPP secured three seats in the Serbian parliament. But despite this success, questions about Muamer Zukorlic’s death overshadowed its victory in Sandzak.
The prosecutor’s office in Novi Pazar on April 14 ordered the exhumation of Zukorlic’s body after his family said that posthumous test results from two European laboratories suggested that he had been poisoned.
“As a family, we conducted a private investigation into the possible cause of death of the late mufti Muamer Zukorlic. From two independent laboratories, which did not know each other, nor did they know whose sample they were processing, we obtained results that there were traces of poison in the sample analysis,” Usame Zukorlic told BIRN.
According to the test results based on a blood sample collected by the family, there is a high probability of heavy metal poisoning and food poisoning.
“This gives us the right to have a well-founded suspicion that the late academician mufti Muamer Zukorlic did not die of natural causes,” Usame Zukorlic said.
He declined to say who he thought might be responsible.
“We are currently focused on definitively determining the cause of death. Until then, we will not bid on any doubts,” he said.
Instead, he said he wants to focus on the future of his party, the Sandzak region and other Muslim communities in Serbia.
“In these elections, the Justice and Reconciliation Party achieved a historic result. We are close to having twice the result of the rival Party of Democratic Action [SDA]. Our party did not have 36,000 votes even at the time of the late mufti [Muamer Zukorlic],” Usame Zukorlic said.
He added that with this amount of votes, the party would have been entitled to have at least five MPs in the Serbian parliament if the election law had not been amended in February to change the allocations of seats to ethnic minority parties.
“We have increased the result in almost all cities of Sandzak. We received strong support from the diaspora, as well as from members of other nations [ethnicities] in the Republic of Serbia. The SPP is now the strongest Bosniak party and represents the interests of all national communities in the Republic of Serbia,” Usame Zukorlic said.
Following his father’s path
Usame Zukorlic was born to Muamer Zukorlic and Umeya Abu Taha Zukorlic in 1992 in Constantine, Algeria where his late father was studying Islamic theology.
He attended the prestigious religious high school of Gazi Isa-beg Medresa in Novi Pazar before starting higher education at the International University of Novi Pazar and Faculty of Islamic Studies.
During and after his university studies, he took on several roles in his father’s empire of interests, which included non-governmental organisations, businesses, schools, a university, institutes and media outlets across the Sandzak region, which straddles parts of south-west Serbia and northern Montenegro.
As a territory, Sandzak has no political autonomy but it does have a strong ethnic identity, with the majority of its roughly 500,000 people identifying as Muslim Bosniaks.
“I am of Bosniak-Arab origin. I graduated in theology, law and economics. Gained experience in the field of NGOs, media, education, history, business and IT sector in the system of the late academician mufti Muamer Zukorlic,” he explained, describing his career before becoming the leader of his father’s party after his sudden death.
“The death of the mufti wounded many hearts. I hope that I will be able to heal them at least in part. We have steadfastly continued to walk the path that was traced by the late academician mufti Muamer Zukorlic,” he added.
He said however that he will not be exactly the same leader as his father.
“The difference is that I belong to the new age of youth. Growing up on technology and the internet,” he explained.
‘A shift of political generations’
Muamer Zukorlic’s efforts to consolidate his power in Sandzak sometimes created turbulence.
During his tenure as mufti of the Islamic Community in Serbia, the official body representing the interests of the country’s Muslims, the organisation split in 2007.
Two rival organisations emerged from the split, with the similarly-named Islamic Community of Serbia advocating greater independence from the Islamic Community of Bosnia in Sarajevo, while Zukorlic’s Islamic Community in Serbia stayed largely loyal to Bosnia.
The struggle for power in Sandzak sometimes turned violent; in 2018, dozens of Muamer Zukorlic’s supporters reportedly tried to force their way into the local assembly in Novi Pazar in a show of strength after they lost control over the Bosniak National Council, the body representing Serbia’s Bosniaks, to the rival SDA Sandzak Party.
His renovation and restoration projects for the Islamic heritage of Sandzak also caused controversy.
Experts saw Muamer Zukorlic as being closer to Gulf states than the Bosniaks’ traditional patron, Turkey, unlike many other Bosniak politicians in the region and he was often accused of working with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The accusation was always rejected, and the SPP told BIRN in January 2021 that the party was definitely not part of Vucic’s government despite the fact that Muamer Zukorlic was elected as the deputy speaker of parliament and his party was given several deputy ministerial positions by Vucic.
But his son appears to be following a different path from his father when it comes to relations with strongman leader Vucic.
“The SPP intends to take part in the formation of the government of the Republic of Serbia,” Usame Zukorlic said, adding that there are areas in which his party agrees and disagrees with Vucic.
“We agreed that we need to work on large infrastructure projects for Sandzak and remove the injustices produced by previous regimes against the Bosniak people,” he explained.
His aims do not end there, however. He said that there has been “a shift of political generations in Sandzak” because people have become impatient with dealing with the same politicians for more than three decades.
“We advocate the entry of Serbia and Montenegro into the European Union, which will open the conditions for the establishment of the cross-border European region of Sandzak, following the example of numerous Euroregions in Europe,” he said, referring to cross-border territorial entities within the EU that enact common policies in areas like the economy, transport and the environment.
“The goal of this project is the economic recovery of Sandzak, one of the poorest regions in the Balkans,” he declared. “Sandzak can be a bridge between states and peoples.”