Serbia: New Law to Ease Central Rule

By dumping Milosevic controls, Serbia hopes to keep regions inside the Yugoslav fold.

Serbia: New Law to Ease Central Rule

By dumping Milosevic controls, Serbia hopes to keep regions inside the Yugoslav fold.

Friday, 1 February, 2002

A new Serbian law on decentralisation has demonstrated a willingness to relax Belgrade's iron grip on disgruntled regions threatening to break away from the country.

The new law, approved by parliament on January 23, restored much of the autonomy once enjoyed by the northern province of Vojvodina whose two million people belong to a wide range of ethnic minorities.

The legislation was also intended as an encouraging signal to areas like Sandzak, with its mainly Muslim population, and to Montenegro. Another purpose was to placate the European Union which has insisted on devolution as the price required for considering Yugoslavia for EU membership.

It took a bitter struggle in parliament to squeeze the law through by a one-vote majority. The ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, was split between the reform wing headed by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and nationalist supporters of President Vojislav Kostunica. In the end Kostunica's faction, who want things to stay as they are, abstained, possibly sensing that decentralisation may be gaining support amongst the electorate.

This law ignited fierce political passions outside the DOS as well. Opposition nationalists led by Vojislav Seselj and Milosevic's socialists harshly attacked politicians from Vojvodina, who helped draft the legislation, and accused Djindjic's government of trying to break up the country.

Under the law, local authorities in Novi Sad, capital of Vojvodina, won greater powers over education, culture, social security, public information and other areas of social life. Even this was nothing like the full autonomy Vojvodina had enjoyed until Milosevic stamped it out in 1989.

But the reforms were regarded as symbolically important, being the first step towards devolution since Milosevic was overthrown in October 2000.

Vojvodina lost its autonomy at the same time as the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Milosevic thought centralisation would help quell the unrest in the region. Instead, it led to a bloody conflict which resulted in it becoming an international protectorate.

When DOS ousted Milosevic, its election programme promised to return Vojvodina to full autonomy. Opposition parties in the region made this a condition for supporting the coalition against Milosevic. DOS then promised decentralisation in other parts of Serbia as well.

Opinions polls in Novi Sad, notably the SCAN polling agency, showed

more than 70 per cent of people in Vojvodina wanted greater self-rule. Surveys have not been conducted in Sandzak but election results indicate that people there want the same thing.

After Milosevic's fall, the election promises went unfulfilled. The ever more persistent demands made by Vojvodina parties were sidelined. Disagreements within DOS broke out when Kostunica insisted on maintaining firm rule from Belgrade.

After the reform bloc prevailed, Djindjic rejected accusations that he was breaking up Serbia and argued that devolution would help keep it together. He said it was the "political schizophrenia created in Milosevic's time which had destroyed the life of the country".

Djindjic said the new law was the first step towards full rehabilitation of

Vojvodina's autonomy, and the decentralisation of all Serbia. He explained that local self-rule was one of the most important elements in Serbia's quest to join the EU

"I favour a large degree of decentralisation. I have lived in such countries in

which it functions perfectly and I think that our country needs it as well," he said.

Further progress on self-government is offered in another draft law being prepared by the Serbian administration. This law would transfer to municipalities and towns, autonomy over financial, property and other matters including control over local police.

Citizens of Vojvodina are especially keen on the economic side of decentralisation. They provide more than 40 per cent of the Serbian budget but retain for only one per cent of it for local use. Everything else goes to Belgrade.

The impression is that Serbia's new authorities want to avoid repeating Milosevic's mistake on autonomy. It remains to be seen how much their actions will reassure the people of Montenegro, half of whom are believed in favour of separation from Yugoslavia

Jan Briza is the deputy editor-in-chief of the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik

Serbia, Kosovo
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