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Fear Ripples Through Vojvodina Minorities

Ultra-nationalist resurgence in recent elections sparks wave of attacks on non-Serbs in multi-ethnic province.
By Jan Briza

Minority communities in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina are feeling the heat after recent stunning gains by Serbian ultra-nationalists raised fears of a return to the ethnic violence of the 1990s.


Residents in the province's capital, Novi Sad, were woken by drunken mobs over Serbian New Year on January 13-14 shouting, "Hey Serbs let's butcher the Croats! Hey Serbs, let's butcher the Hungarians!"


Petar Dedjanski, a local Serb, was roused by a group of about 20 young drunks outside his window. "They were shouting horrible threats and singing songs of the Chetniks," he said, referring to the Serb nationalist fighters during World War 2. Dedjanski told IWPR the crowd only left when someone called the police.


Marina Fratucan, a Novi Sad journalist, had a similar fright. Awoken by her doorbell, she confronted a group of ruffians yelling insults. "They terrified my eight-year-old son and only ran off when the police finally arrived," she said.


Fratucan has been a frequent target of Serb nationalists on account of her work in Radio Free Europe. They have labelled her "a traitor of Serb people".


The wave of incidents stepped up during and after the December 28 general election, which saw the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, make sweeping gains.


The party led by Vojislav Seselj, currently facing war crimes charges in The Hague, emerged the largest party in Serbia's new parliament, and achieved its greatest success in Vojvodina, where it won in 35 of the 45 municipalities. The Radicals lost only in eight mainly Hungarian municipalities in the north and in two dominated by Slovaks.


The results sent a ripple of fear through the 30 or so ethnic communities in Vojvodina, where Serbs make up about 65 per cent of the 2 million population. Hungarians are largest minority, with 290,000 people, or just over 14 per cent.


Immediately after the launch of the campaign, Novi Sad's Catholic cemetery, where Hungarians, Croats and other minority groups are buried, was desecrated. Police charged against two unnamed juveniles, though the media voiced doubts that the two could have inflicted such damage alone.


As in the 1990s, the fiercest attacks have been directed against Vojvodina's remaining Croats. In the course of the election, the chair of the Croat National Council, Lazo Vojnic Hajduk, was assaulted.


Over the Catholic Christmas celebrations, Serb emblems, comprising a cross garnished with four "S" letters in Cyrillic, were sprayed over the cars of a journalist of the Zagreb daily Jutarnji List and of other visitors to the Croat cultural centre in Subotica, near the Hungarian border.


In Tavankut, the northernmost town of Vojvodina, home mainly to Croats, a monument to the Croat mediaeval peasant leader Matija Gubec, was vandalised twice. The first attack took place in the night of December 28, while the votes in the election were being counted. It was further damaged during New Year's Eve celebrations.


The windows of the Croat cultural centre in Sombor were also smashed, while a Catholic cross was pulled down in the village of Mala Bosna.


The most serious threats were delivered by telephone to the weekly Hrvatska Rijec (Croat Word) on several occasions during mid-January by a man claiming to represent the Subotica Chetnik Movement. "If your paper is published just one more time I'll kill you all. You've murdered my child," the anonymous male voice said. The paper's editor, Zvonimir Perusic, said the voice wished them "a happy Chetnik New Year" and repeated the threat "We'll kill you all".


The attacks have not gone unreported. The Information Bureau of the Serbia-Montenegro Ministerial Council on January 15 demanded a swift response from the police and courts.


International journalist organisations including the South East Europe Media Organisation, SEEMO, and the International Press Institute, IPI, also called on the Serbian and authorities to investigate.


The president of the League of Vojvodina's Social Democrats and the speaker of the Vojvodina parliament, Nenad Canak, accused the Radicals of spreading fascist ideas and urged the imposition of an official ban on the party.


Canak was one of a few party leaders who dared to publicly oppose the ethnic cleansing of Croats and other minorities in Vojvodina by the Radicals in the Nineties.


The wave of assaults and threats has awoken painful memories from the wars of the 1990s, when Seselj's Radicals tried to "ethnically cleanse" Vojvodina. Croats were particularly targeted and over 10,000 were forced to flee their homes during June, July and August of 1992.


The most notorious incident involved the village of Hrtkovci where more than 450 Croat and ethnically mixed families were forced out in August 1992 after Seselj visited the village. His supporters even Serbianised the name of the village, which was re-designated "Srbislavci".


Jovan Komsic, a sociologist, warns that the Radical victory in Vojvodina may have sweeping consequences. "The majority of their voters effectively opted for a vision of Serbia constantly at war with its neighbours since the political platform of the Serbian Radical Party is Greater Serbia," he told the Vojvodina daily Dnevnik.


However, Radical party officials reject accusations of being responsible for the nationalist incidents. The deputy president, Tomislav Nikolic, said the accusations had no basis in reality.


"We would need only one hundred days in power to make all those who believe we are fascists change their minds," he said.


"We would prove wrong all those who believe we only harass, abuse or persecute people. We would prove wrong those who think we cannot form a democratic government."


As for the victims of the assaults, they seem determined to ride out the latest wave of hostility. Antun Merkovic, a Croat from Tavankuta, said previous attempts at intimidation had failed to drive Croats from their homes.


"Regardless of what the Radicals say, all of us are staying here," he said.


He even ventured a black joke about his community's plight. After winning the elections, he said, Seselj sent sandwiches to all the ethnic minorities in Vojvodina. He gave one each to the Croats and Hungarians but two to all the Slovaks. Asked why he had sent more to the Slovaks, Seselj answered, "They have to travel further."


Jan Briza is a journalist with the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik.


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