Prominent Hungarian Joins Serbian Leadership

A Hungarian minority leader causes a stir by joining the new Serbian administration.

Prominent Hungarian Joins Serbian Leadership

A Hungarian minority leader causes a stir by joining the new Serbian administration.

Thursday, 1 February, 2001

To widespread astonishment, a leader of Serbia's Hungarian minority has become a deputy president in the new Serbian government, apparently believing this is the only way to improve the lot of his discontented community.

The post went to Josef Kasa, leader of the Union of Vojvodina Hungarians, SVM, who hopes to both address his community's grievances over their lack of political influence and push for Hungarian language status in the media and education.

The province of Vojvodina in northern Serbia is home to about 20 minorities, of which Hungarians form the largest group, at around 330,000 people - most of them living in northern Backa.

It's only possible to estimate the size of the minority, as between 30,000 to 50,000 members of the community are believed to have emigrated to Hungary during the Yugoslav conflict.

Only a couple of months ago, Kasa refused a ministerial position within the new federal government because he claimed he had not been given assurances for his two key demands: the upgrading of Hungarian language status and wider local self-rule.

Kasa changed his tune after a meeting with new Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica on January 22. He said the time had now come for national minorities to solve their problems within the state apparatus.

His SVM party appeared to be signalling that improvement of minority rights, never possible under the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic, might be negotiated with the new Belgrade authorities.

It is not yet known whether Kasa presented Kostunica with a list of demands or whether they came to some sort of arrangement.

There is widespread belief that Kostunica must have made concessions to win over Kasa who is not known to accept empty promises. The SVM is at the moment avoiding any contact with journalists.

It seems unlikely that Kostunica promised Kasa the Hungarians would be allowed to merge municipalities in order to establish majority Hungarian administrations, as some have predicted.

Such a concept conflicts with Kostunica's principles. Yet the feeling is that Kostunica must have made some tangible offer.

Details of the agreement will be revealed by the new Serbian government shortly.

Both sides are risking a lot. Serbian nationalists are far from happy to see Kasa, previously dubbed by the Milosevic regime as a separatist, in such a senior position.

At the same time, Hungarian nationalists will expect quick results from Kasa. They will not forgive him if he appears to be moving closer to Belgrade than to Budapest.

It is likely that Kasa opted for a compromise on the pressing problems facing minorities in Vojvodina. Most of these people are scattered all over the province in ethnically-mixed regions. This dispersal makes it harder to promote their own languages or establish their own authorities.

According to law, minorities are entitled to education in their own language from primary school to university. They also have the right to their own media and the preservation of their culture. In reality, though, the picture is different.

The Milosevic regime did not encourage alternative education, arguing that children learning Serbian would find it easier to get jobs. Another problem was lack of Hungarian teachers, as many emigrated to Hungary. In addition, there were insufficient funds to finance mother tongue education.

The media was in an even worse position. It was under control of the Milosevic-dominated Vojvodina assembly. And the provincial budget was too small to fund minority publications.

Until the overthrow of Milosevic in October, minority newspapers were controlled by his Socialist Party of Serbia and by his wife's Yugoslav Left party. Now the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, has taken over and chosen new editorial teams and board members.

Some Hungarian intellectuals have objected, saying the media was again falling under control of a dominating party. The editorial staff of the Hungarian daily Magyar So protested and some members of its executive board resigned.

All this piled pressure on Kasa, apparently persuading him to try and negotiate with Belgrade.

A great deal of work must be done to resolve the disputes of the past 10 years. According to a 1991 census, national minorities comprised one third of Vojvodina. But wars brought about changes. Hungarian and Croatian minorities left the province in large numbers while Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia were resettled there.

Kasa's party proposed three years ago to Milosevic that minorities should have greater self-rule. Milosevic ignored the request, saying all minorities in Serbia have the same right under European standards.

The former president's attitude helped to bring about the recent electoral triumphs of Vojislav Kostunica and his DOS in those parts of Vojvodina where minorities live.

These are signs that minorities, which felt provoked by the Milosevic regime, trust the present government and want to avoid deepening national differences.

The downfall of the ultra-nationalists has encouraged minority communities to believe they will no longer face the old pressures.

Many people in Vojvodina believe it's time to make the Kostunica-Kasa agreement public.

They argue, however, that the problems facing minority communities should be solved not by ad hoc deals but through fundamental change.

Any solution must conform to European standards, as far as minority rights are concerned, if Serbia's DOS administration really intends to bring the country closer to Europe.

Mihailo Ramac is a regular IWPR contributor

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