EU an Ally in Autonomy Quest

Given the lack of dialogue between Vojvodina and Serbia, the province’s future may well rest on its success in playing the EU card.

EU an Ally in Autonomy Quest

Given the lack of dialogue between Vojvodina and Serbia, the province’s future may well rest on its success in playing the EU card.

Supporters of autonomy in Vojvodina have learned a harsh lesson from the era of Slobodan Milosevic, which is that a centralising administration in Belgrade will never willingly give them the degree of autonomy they cherish.

In 1990, the wide-ranging autonomy that the province had enjoyed since the last years of the Tito era was practically scrapped by the Milosevic government.

Since then, the promise of the democratic coalition that ousted Milosevic to restore Vojvodina’s autonomy has remained unfulfilled.

Serbia’s late prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, adopted a so-called omnibus law in 2001 under pressure from his partners in Vojvodina, which restored some competencies to Vojvodina.

But this was just a small part of what the pro-autonomy parties have expected and been promised.

The problem is not only that post-Milosevic political elite in Belgrade has failed to reach agreement over a new constitution but that they are showing considerable fear over where autonomy might lead in Vojvodina.

Support for the concept of a centralised state remains strong in Belgrade, where many do not believe it would be in Serbia’s interest to give full autonomy to the northern province.

They do not accept that regionalisation would speed up the overall process of integration into Europe, as supporters of autonomy claim.

The two most serious constitutional proposals made by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s government and President Boris Tadic include granting legislative, executive and some judicial powers to Vojvodina, as well as independent sources of income.

But although Kostunica’s government is drafting a new constitution, it has not included the Vojvodina authorities in the process, as they have no representatives in the Serbian parliament.

To compensate for this, the ruling coalition in Vojvodina recently sent all the relevant political parties in Belgrade its views of the future constitutional position of the province, demanding precise guarantees of its status and, most of all, economic autonomy.

In particular, they demanded that at least some of the tax collected on its territory will remain in Vojvodina for its own use together with the right to manage the province’s own affairs, which Milosevic transferred to the central authorities.

The demands are highly significant for the future of the province, as Belgrade currently controls around 75 per cent of the municipal budgets in Vojvodina.

Another point of concern is the fact that representatives of minority communities have not been included in the constitutional process.

A proposal from the largest ethnic Hungarian party for the new constitution to allow minority sub-regions to be set up has met with silence.

The constitutional proposals from the Vojvodina government have also not drawn any reaction from Belgrade.

Vojvodina’s administration believes Belgrade is simply ignoring it. The level of communication between Novi Sad and Belgrade is undoubtedly poor, highlighted by the fact that since Kostunica became prime minister last year, he visited Vojvodina three times but always declined to have meetings with the provincial administration.

In these circumstances, the final position of the province in the new Serbian constitution may well depend on European pressure and on Serbia’s readiness to meet European criteria.

The Association of European Regions, AER, the largest regional organisation in Europe, of which Vojvodina is a member, recently sent a recommendation to the Serbian government, suggesting that it guaranteed Vojvodina’s legislative, executive and some judicial freedom, as well as control over its revenue.

Serbia may, in the end, accept that it cannot go against the grain of the EU’s stated commitment to the principle of decentralisation and regionalisation.

Given the lack of any real dialogue and partnership between Novi Sad and Belgrade, the Vojvodina administration has realised that the European dimension is their trump card and that Belgrade is going to have to admit sooner or later that it cannot curtail the province’s autonomous development in the long term.

Zuzana Serences is a freelance journalist from Novi Sad.

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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