Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hungarians Call for Local Autonomy

SVM has scant hopes of seeing its demand made part of Serbia’s new constitution but may extract other concessions.
By Márton Attila

The demand by the ethnic Hungarians’ strongest party for territorial autonomy in Vojvodina stands little chance of success, say analysts.


Most see it as a bid by the Alliance of Vojvodina's Hungarians, SVM, to strengthen its bargaining position by pushing for the maximum, with the real aim of extracting other concessions while Serbia’s new constitution is still being drafted.


The SVM wants the new constitution to provide for a Hungarian autonomous region in five municipalities where minorities, meaning Hungarians, make up an absolute or relative majority.


In this region the minority language would have the same official status as Serbian, so that public officials would have to be bilingual, while other measures would ensure local government reflected the local ethnic make-up.


Few believe the demand stands much chance of success, as no major Serbian political parties in Belgrade or Vojvodina would accept it.


Moreover, the SVM does not actually enjoy support of all the ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina.


Vojvodina is an autonomous province of Serbia inhabited by people of over 20 different ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds of the population are Serbs, while Hungarians are second at 13 per cent. The Hungarians are concentrated in northern Vojvodina but some 40 per cent are scattered outside this area in towns and villages surrounding larger urban areas.


The SVM is already part of the provincial government with the Democratic Party, DS; the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, LSV, which advocates more autonomy for Vojvodina as a whole; and the Serbian tycoon Bogoljub Karic's populist Strength of Serbia.


The SVM has no deputies in the Serbian parliament as the coalition it was a member of failed to meet the minimum threshold set by law during the last general elections in December 2003.


It does have a dominant role within the Hungarian National Council, a body that has controversially assumed control in the past two years over almost all Hungarian-language media outlets in the province.


One reason the constitution is still being drafted after five years is the question of Vojvodina's autonomy, over which there is no consensus in Serbia - or in Vojvodina.


The Hungarian demand for autonomy has already met a hostile reaction from some big Serbian parties, which see the demands as the first step towards secession.


Staunchest opposition has come from the hard-line nationalist opposition Serbian Radical Party, SRS.


The biggest single party in Vojvodina and Serbia, it holds power locally in many towns and cities, including the province's capital Novi Sad.


The SRS is also the strongest single party in the Serbian parliament, holding almost a third of all the seats.


Its current leader, Tomislav Nikolic, the party vice-president, who is running the party in the absence of Vojislav Seselj, now on trial for war crimes in The Hague, made it clear he was dead set against the SVM proposal.


On July 15, Nikolic told the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik that no autonomous provinces should exist in Serbia, let alone some “multiethnic territorial self-government”.


Nor has the moderate DS, led by the Serbian president Boris Tadic, welcomed the SVM initiative.


The party does not want to see new territorial entities created in Vojvodina, Dusan Petrovic, DS caucus leader in the Serbian parliament and member of the parliament's committee on constitutional issues, told Dnevnik.


Petrovic said the province as a whole was the proper framework for ethnic minorities to exercise minority rights. That is to say


The DS’s provincial committee has not commented in public but its reticence is widely interpreted as indicating disapproval.


The SVM’s coalition partners at regional level in Vojvodina also failed to lend much support for the initiative. The LSV voiced strong opposition to the idea of territorial self-government for minorities.


Emil Fejzulahi, from the LSV presidency, echoed the line of the Democrats in Belgrade. “We believe Vojvodina as a general framework is ideal for the preservation and advance of one's national identity,” he said.


On the other hand, the SVM is not opposed to extending the scope of Vojvodina's overall autonomy, as the LSV urges.


Together with its coalition partners in the province, the SVM wants the new Serbian constitution to grant more powers for Vojvodina's legislative and executive organs as well as more powers over taxation.


One of the SVM’s weakest points is that it does not enjoy the support of all Vojvodina's Hungarians.


Although in the last local and provincial elections in September 2004 it beat the other ethnic Hungarian parties, its influence has waned since the period from 2000 to 2004, when as part of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, it was in power in Serbia and controlled seven of Vojvodina’s 50-odd municipalities.


In the September 2004 election, the SVM lost power in three Vojvodina municipalities - Ada, Kanjiza and Coka - and suffered a heavy blow in Becej, where ethnic Hungarians make up about a half the population. The party is now in control of just four municipalities.


One problem it faces is that a significant portion of ethnic Hungarians do not vote for their own ethnic at all but for mainstream Serbian or regional Vojvodinian parties. And some of these Hungarians resent what they see as the SVM’s grandstanding on autonomy.


“This is another attempt by the SVM to establish a political monopoly in all places populated by Hungarians, even though they lost the previous election,” said Viktor Kovács, from Ada.


“I would say it's time for integration. Vojvodina needs to unite against central government in Belgrade to achieve more autonomy - but at the same time avoid any hint at separatism.”


“This proposal is just a dream,” commented another Hungarian from Ada. “It’s obviously not acceptable. If we Hungarians were granted these rights, Bosniaks in Sandzak would also be entitled to them and this would turn into a risky political adventure, which not even the pro-democracy parties in Serbia would accept.”


This businessman said he shared Kovács’s view that the SVM might achieve more by joining the LSV and the DS in demanding more autonomy for Vojvodina as a whole and stronger powers for local government.


Laura Kovács, a journalist from Subotica, is more sympathetic to the SVM’s demands though she, too, said she did not think the current political climate in Serbia favoured such a solution.


Other Hungarians raised the issue of the fate of the 40 per cent of Hungarians who would remain outside the autonomous area as envisaged by the SVM


“Slightly more than half the ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina live in those five municipalities… so the other half would be in an inferior position,” said Emil Fejzulahi of the LSV.


Bearing in mind the mixed feelings over the SVM initiative even inside the Hungarian community, many wonder what lies behind it.


The SVM leader József Kasza’s advisor, Tamas Korhecz, who devised the initiative, said the time was right for such demands to be made as the drafting of the new constitution was now in progress.


Such comments suggest to some analysts that the SVM is pushing for the maximum in order to achieve other objectives.


These demands might include guarantees in the constitution of proportional representation of minorities in government and public administration and the right to official use of minority languages.


Even Kasza and Korhecz have emphasised that their proposals are not an ultimatum but a starting point for a dialogue.


Imre Sebestyén, the owner of an internet news portal, does not rule out a possibility of Hungarian territorial autonomy becoming a reality one day.


But he, too, thinks it is more feasible in the meantime for Hungarians to try to reach a compromise on other demands with the Serbian authorities.


“The SVM will surely achieve some of its objectives one day, because Serbia is heading for decentralisation,” he said.


Márton Attila is a journalist based in Vojvodina.