Vojvodina Autonomy Drive

The province of Vojvodina is demanding that the Serbian authorities restore its former autonomous status.

Vojvodina Autonomy Drive

The province of Vojvodina is demanding that the Serbian authorities restore its former autonomous status.

The Serbian government this week signalled its willingness to restore the autonomous status of Vojvodina, heading off attempts by provincial leaders to internationalise the issue.

Frustrated that Vojvodina's status had still not been addressed ten months after the Democratic Opposition of Serbia defeated Slobodan Milosevic at the polls, the region's three main parties had threatened to approach the international community for support if the government did not address the issue by August 3.

Five days before the deadline, the Vojvodina daily Dnevnik quoted the Serbian vice-president, Zarko Korac, as saying autonomy would be discussed when the holiday period finished at the end of August.

In an interview for the independent Novi Sad radio station 021, the president of the Serbian parliament, Dragan Marsicanin, went even further, saying that Vojvodina's status would have to be changed to reflect the wishes of the majority of the province's population.

He appealed for patience and said that drafting of a new constitution for Serbia would begin in six months, by which time it is hoped that Montenegro and Serbia will resolve their relationship within Yugoslavia.

In theory, the government will still miss the deadline, which required them to commence discussions by August 3. Nenad Canak, leader of the Vojvodina Social Democrats, one of three parties behind the ultimatum, announced that he would organise street protests in the response to the missed deadline, but left for holiday without doing so.

His colleague Mile Isakov, leader of the Vojvodina Reformists, also went on vacation, leading observers to conclude that the three parties - which also include the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, led by Jozef Kasa - appear satisfied that their ultimatum has succeeded in forcing Vojvodina's autonomy onto the political agenda.

The three Novi Sad-based party leaders had become increasingly dissatisfied with their Belgrade coalition partners. On the eve of the October elections, DOS promised to return autonomy to Vojvodina - which Milosevic stripped from the province in 1989 - but has shown no inclination to discuss the issue since.

In March, Vojvodina's assembly requested its Serbian counterpart to suspend over 100 laws which effectively disenfranchised the region. When the latter failed to respond, the request was reissued in the form of an ultimatum on July 25.

The three leaders have insisted throughout that they do not have a separatist agenda. At a press conference announcing the ultimatum, Canak, who is also president of the Vojvodina parliament, stressed the region supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Serbian state and has no interest in setting separate foreign or defence policies.

However, the Vojvodina assembly does want to take control over its own agriculture, healthcare, social security, childcare, education, language, the cultural life of national minorities and cross-border and regional cooperation.

Abolition of the 1996 laws nationalising all property owned by the local government is also a key demand. This legislation wrested ownership of parks, municipal buildings and business premises from Vojvodina to Belgrade. All the revenues from these assets were accordingly re-routed to the Yugoslav capital.

Politicians from Vojvodina also want to take part in negotiations on the future of the Yugoslav state. Working groups have now been in progress for over a month between the federal government and representatives of some Montenegrin parties. Their inclusion in these talks would acknowledge Vojvodina as a significant entity within Yugoslavia.

Economics provides the main impetus for the campaign for autonomy. Between 1974 and 1989, when Vojvodina had its own constitution and economic independence, the province enjoyed a much higher GDP than the rest of Serbia, coming close behind the more developed republics of Croatia and Slovenia.

The forcible withdrawal of autonomy caused a dramatic economic downturn in the region, as local funds were drained by Belgrade and the province was cut off from its markets in Slovenia, Croatia and Western Europe.

Restoration of autonomy would allow much faster economic development, which would in turn benefit Serbia as a whole, argue the party leaders.

Public opionion polls show that over 60 per cent of the population in Vojvodina believes that centralisation was the main reason for their economic decline, which could be rectified if the province was granted autonomy.

Other recent polls reveal that up to three quarters of the local population believe that the majority of tax and other income collected within Vojvodina should stay in the province and not go to the central budget.

The Vojvodina party leaders have now suspended their threat to seek international support for the autonomy issue, but could resurrect it if talks are postponed further, or if the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction.

In recent months Canak, Kasa and Isakov have been making contacts with foreign governments and international organisations. Many Western ambassadors have stayed in Novi Sad as guests of the Vojvodina parliament.

At the beginning of July, Canak addressed a round table discussion dedicated to the province, organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. On his return, Canak commented that Janus Bugaisky, director of the centre, told him the US supports Vojvodina's demands.

Since these meetings have only been sketchily covered in the media, it is difficult to gauge what international support the province really has. Vojvodina's politicians had claimed they would approach both the European Union and the United Nations and it was assumed they would lobby for international aid to be made conditional on the restoration of Vojvodina's autonomy. "We will request any kind of help except military intervention," said Kasa, clarifying matters little further.

The government's statements on Vojvodina have diffused the campaign until September, but it remains to be seen how the DOS coalition approaches the issue of Vojvodina. Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica's party, the influential Democratic Party of Serbia, vociferously opposes the restoration of autonomy or any federalisation of the state.

Other parties, such the Social Democratic Union, believe that issue can be calmly resolved. The province's party leaders maintain that they don't want to leave DOS, but want to see pre-election promises made good - and soon. "Postponing talks on Vojvodina may be costly for them," Isakov has warned.

Mihajlo Ramac is Novi Sad-based IWPR contributor.

Serbia, Croatia
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