Case for Autonomy Weakens

From a highpoint in the 1990s, popular support for restoring the autonomy that Vojvodina enjoyed in the pre-Milosevic era has declined.

Case for Autonomy Weakens

From a highpoint in the 1990s, popular support for restoring the autonomy that Vojvodina enjoyed in the pre-Milosevic era has declined.

Vojvodina citizens want more autonomy than they have now but most no longer hanker for the high degree of self-government they enjoyed before 1988, according to recent surveys.

The Serbian government is still drafting a new constitution for the country that will determine the scope of autonomy for the northern province of Serbia, which was stripped of its legislative, executive and judicial powers in 1988 by Slobodan Milosevic.

But while discontent still seethes over Vojvodina’s status in some quarters, the popular demand for comprehensive autonomy that appeared strong in the Nineties has lost momentum.

Experts produce many reasons for this, from popular reluctance to initiate conflicts with Belgrade to the marked change in Vojvodina’s ethnic composition as a result of Serb refugee influxes and the discrediting of most pro-autonomy political parties.

The public gave only a mute response to the new Governance Act, adopted by the Serbian parliament on June 22, which enables Belgrade to suspend any statutes and bylaws enacted by the province’s government or municipalities that it objects to.

Bojan Kostres, speaker of the Vojvodina parliament and member of a small pro-autonomy party, the Social Democratic League of Vojvodina, LSV, says the new legislation is akin to “a mild coup d’état”.

But there were no serious ripples of discontent on Vojvodina’s political scene or signs of popular anger.

Until 1988, both Vojvodina and Kosovo enjoyed a degree of autonomy that differed little from the rights granted to Yugoslavia’s constituent republics.

After Milosevic scrapped most of the provinces’ powers, they were reduced to dealing with a few competences, such as health, minorities and culture.

After Milosevic fell in October 2000, the new democratic government pledged to adopt a new constitution that would make a clean break with the Milosevic-era constitution of 1990 and restore provincial autonomy.

Several years on, the new constitution is still being drafted, mainly owing to the failure of the big parties to agree on such basic principles as decentralisation and devolution.

Under the constitution now in effect, provinces have no power to initiate legislation, raise taxes or control their own income.

Instead, they rely on money that the Serbian parliament earmarks for the provinces. (This now applies only to Vojvodina, as Kosovo has been beyond Serbian control since 1999.)

The draft of the new constitution drawn up by the government of Vojislav Kostunica envisages restoring control over some revenues and legislative powers to provinces.

But it leaves the final word on the revenues and powers to the Belgrade parliament and ensures that Serbian law takes precedence over laws passed by Vojvodina.

Vojvodina's ruling coalition, comprising Serbian president Boris Tadic's Democratic Party, DS, the Social Democratic League of Vojvodina, LSV, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, SVM, and the Strength of Serbia Movement, led by Bogoljub Karic, says it wants more.

This spring, it called for Vojvodina to enjoy greater legislative, executive and judicial freedom and to obtain tax-raising powers.

But Serbia’s parliament has not even considered these proposals and in the meantime pressure in Vojvodina for the restoration of full autonomy is waning, according to polling agencies.

A survey by the Novi Sad agency SCAN in May 2005 showed only about 28 per cent of Vojvodina citizens want a return to the province’s pre-1988 status while 28 per cent would be satisfied if Vojvodina's status remains the same as it is now.

Around 14 per cent want greater powers than at present but less than before 1988, while 5 per cent want Vojvodina to become an independent republic, linked to Serbia in a joint state. Some 4 per cent champion total independence.

At the other end of the spectrum, 7 per cent urge the abolition of all aspects of autonomy.

Milka Puzigaca, SCAN’s director, says the public mood on autonomy shifts in line with political and social developments.

When Kosovo Albanians staged mass attacks on local Serbs in March 2004, for example, support for autonomy in Vojvodina took a nosedive.

“Whenever an incident like this happens, people in Vojvodina react by saying ‘We want to avoid any kind of war’,” said Puzigaca.

Support was at its highpoint in the late Nineties, when almost two-thirds of the province's population favoured wide-ranging autonomy, she noted.

But the demand has lost ground steadily since the outbreak of Serb-Albanian armed conflicts in Kosovo in 1998.

After Milosevic’s fall in 2000, this trend has persisted, particularly after 2002, when the late Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic effectively increased the province's powers in line with the existing Serbian constitution.

“Whenever central government in Belgrade appears more sensitive to the needs and prerogatives of the province, the people of Vojvodina moderate their position,” concluded Puzigaca.

Vladimir Ilic, a sociologist and the head of the Centre for Civil Society Development, an NGO based in Zrenjanin, says there is no longer an appetite for renewed tensions with Belgrade.

“I used to include this question in surveys: Do you favour full autonomy for Vojvodina even if it entail heightening tensions, perhaps even conflicts, with Belgrade?” he said. “The percentage of those in favour would then drop to below 20 per cent.”

Another key factor in the change in the public mood is the radical change in the province’s ethnic composition since the early Nineties.

In the 1981 census, Serbs barely made up an overall majority of the province’s population, with 54.4 per cent of the total.

But today they comprise two-thirds of the 2.3 million people in Vojvodina, 65 per cent of the population.

Several hundred thousand Serb refugees poured into Vojvodina from Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Kosovo in the Nineties, while other communities fell in size as a result of forced or voluntary emigration.

The number of ethnic Hungarians declined from 350,000 to less than 300,000 by 2001, for example, while tens of thousands of ethnic Croats were expelled after Croatia declared its independence.

The influx of Serbs has weakened the hands of those who champion greater self-government.

The SCAN survey results suggest 35 per cent of Serbs in Vojvodina are happy with the status quo, while 9 per cent would like to see autonomy abolished entirely

Still, while the majority of Serbs are for greater autonomy, only 18 per cent of them want a return to the province’s pre-1988 status and 9 per cent favour independence.

“I respect Vojvodina’s unique economic, civilisational and geographic traits, which are all the good reasons for Vojvodina's political autonomy,” one fairly typical local Serb told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR.

“But I'm not in favour of Vojvodina gaining any elements of sovereignty, though it should have the right to collect taxes on its own.”

Among minorities, support for full autonomy is more conspicuous. Emil Krizan, a Hungarian, wants a full return to the position Vojvodina occupied before 1988, a commonly held view among non-Serbs.

“Above all, I’m in favour of financial and fiscal autonomy, given that people in Vojvodina could live very well before 1988,” he said.

Vladimir Ilic says the recent ethnic changes are so marked that it is no longer realistic to call Vojvodina a multinational province.

Outside the Serbian community, only Hungarians make up more than 3 per cent of the population, he notes, while the number of Croats, Romanians and others has slumped.

“The southern part of Vojvodina is now almost entirely Serb,” he said. “In the central part there is an ongoing process of assimilation of minorities, while only the northern part, bordering Hungary, is still bi-national.”

The decline in the number of minorities has weakened the pro-autonomy parties that arose in the 1990s on the back of discontent with the Milosevic regime.

These included the Social Democratic League of Vojvodina, LSV, led by Nenad Canak and the Vojvodina's Reformists, which was headed for years by Miodrag Isakov.

After the collapse of the Milosevic regime, together with smaller pro-autonomy groups and ethnic Hungarian and Croat parties, they took power in Vojvodina as part of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, known as DOS.

But the honeymoon between the various groups soon ended, while an especially bitter conflict between the LSV and the Vojvodina Reformists caused damaging splits.

By the September 2004 election, in addition to the DS, only the LSV and the Hungarian party remained in the province's government. The LSV won around 10 per cent in the September elections and remains part of the new ruling coalition.

But the struggles between the pro-autonomy parties weakened them all. None has gained any seats in the Serbian parliament since the December 2003 election when they failed to cross the 5-per-cent threshold.

This June another attempt was made to unite the pro-autonomy forces into a new Vojvodina Party, comprising six small groups, including the Vojvodina Reformists.

But it is too early to predict whether it will play an important role in public life.

Djordje Subotic, a Vojvodina Party spokesman, said the need to articulate the pro-autonomy case had made the formation of a new party an urgent necessity.

Divisions in their ranks, he said, had made the core support in Vojvodina for greater autonomy look weaker than it was.

Emil Krizan shares that sentiment. “Ordinary people don't like the bickering and infighting among the pro-autonomy parties,” he said, “or the fact that their leaders have scarcely changed in 15 years.”

Márton Attila is a journalist based in Vojvodina.

This is one of series of articles on Vojvodina produced as part of the BIRN Media Training and Reporting Project, generously supported by the British Embassy in Belgrade.

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