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Autonomy On The Agenda

During NATO's bombing campaign, Vojvodina's Hungarians kept as low a profile as possible. Now they have taken up the issue of autonomy again.
By Zuzana Serences

Catholics in the small Vojvodina town of Temerin, most of whom are Hungarian, forewent their traditional Good Friday procession this year out of respect for their Orthodox neighbours. With Yugoslavia at war, they did not want to give the country's Serb majority any excuse to turn on them. The Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians suspended all political activities during the first days of the bombing for similar reasons.


This ethnically mixed municipality, close to the provincial capital of Novi Sad, is ruled by the Serbian Radical Party of the extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj-and Hungarians fear that the slightest indiscretion could prove fatal. Although all Vojvodina's 26 peoples shared a common fear during the NATO bombing, this emotion was most conspicuous among ethnic Hungarians, who at more than 300,000 are the largest non-Serb community.


Unlike Vojvodina's other ethnic groups, the province's Hungarians are politically well-organised and have clearly articulated demands. The fact that Hungary, their mother country, joined the NATO alliance just days before the bombing began was an additional cause for fear.


Laszlo Joza, Vice-President of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, the region's most influential ethnic Hungarian political party, says that he feared Serbs would see local Hungarians as belonging to an "aggressor nation". Soon after the first bombs fell, television programming from Hungary and Croatia was taken off cable television in the ethnically mixed towns of Vojvodina, even though the same did not happen to CNN or other "aggressor television stations".


"On one occasion, a bomb was thrown into the courtyard of the village Catholic church in the municipality of Jasa Tomic," said Joza. "Although the level of fear was great, the worst incidents were shouting matches."


Indeed, Joza believes that relations between Serbs and Hungarians have not been unduly upset and that the psychological pressure on Vojvodina's Hungarians was greater eight years ago when the war with Croatia began.


Vojvodina's Hungarians were not the only ones to chart a conciliatory course during the NATO bombing campaign. The government too was careful not to aggravate inter-ethnic tensions. Government officials took pains to visit ethnically mixed communities during the war and to explain to non-Serbs that they were welcome and should not leave. At the same time, ethnic Hungarian political parties refrained from taking up "sensitive issues".


But since the war's end, Hungarians have resumed political activities and their political representatives have again taken up the question of autonomy. The Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians is now seeking personal autonomy for Hungarians. This proposal envisages the election of a Hungarian national council with the power to decide on education, culture and media matters, and, critically, control of the Serbian budget which would normally be allocated to these ends.


Josef Kasa, the leader of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, the only parliamentary Hungarian party, goes a step further: He has gone on record saying that a joint team of experts from his party and the Hungarian government has prepared a document with a three-stage autonomy plan.


This paper envisages personal autonomy for the Vojvodina Hungarians; the return of the autonomy which Vojvodina had stripped from it a decade ago; and territorial autonomy for the Hungarians, that is the formation of some kind of "Hungarian district".


Precise details of this proposal have not been made public, but Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has begun frequently appealing for the reinstatement of Vojvodina's autonomy and talking of the need to secure Western support for this concept. He has also called on all Vojvodina's Hungarian political parties to support this model of autonomy.


The region's Hungarians have broadly welcomed this appeal to unity, since their political parties have a reputation for feuding. They have also noted a recent statement by NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana in Budapest to the effect that NATO would be following events in Vojvodina closely.


Hungarians, nevertheless, fear a backlash, both from the regime and from the media, since almost every demand for autonomy to date has been interpreted as separatism. And they are not helped by the irredentism of nationalist parties in Hungary.


Istvan Curka of the marginal Party of Hungarian Truth and Life advocates the annexation of the northern area of Vojvodina, from Sombor to Kikinda, to Hungary. Although mainstream Hungarian political parties on both sides of the border have condemned this, Vojvodina's Hungarians fear that Belgrade may, nevertheless, use it to accuse them of "separatism".


Zuzana Serences is an independent journalist from Novi Sad.