Vojvodina Hit by Wave of Ethnic Attacks

Minorities report increasing number of assaults by Serb nationalists.

Vojvodina Hit by Wave of Ethnic Attacks

Minorities report increasing number of assaults by Serb nationalists.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

“I am afraid of the hooligans who insult and attack us because we speak Albanian,” said Nusret Gashi. “The police defend us but they don’t always make it on time.”

Gashi, 30, his wife and his four children live in constant fear of attacks by Serb extremists in their small house in the Veliki Rit, a suburb of Novi Sad, in Vojvodina

The Gashis are not Albanian but members of the Ashkalija community, themselves refugees from Albanian violence in Kosovo, which they fled after Nato’s air war pushed out Serbian forces.

Unlike many of his compatriots, forced to live in collective refugee centres and Roma settlements, Gashi got a job and earns a living.

But for the Gashis - as for many members of Vojvodina’s minority communities - life has become fraught after violent against Serbs in Kosovo in mid-March triggered revenge attacks on non-Serbs in Vojvodina.

On the night of March 17/18, when the riots peaked in Kosovo, the Gashi family had to spend the night hiding in a swamp to avoid Serb extremists threatening to burn down their settlement.

While Vojvodina's political leaders have condemned the escalation of attacks on ethnic minorities, the failure of police to arrest many perpetrators has fuelled tensions in the province.

Slogans reading “death to Hungarians” and “Hungarians go to Hungary” (at more than 300,000 strong, the largest minority in Vojvodina) cover the walls of many Vojvodina towns.

But the problem is more than one of slogans. In late March, vandals desecrated a Catholic cemetery in Subotica, a town on the border with Hungary where Catholic Hungarians and Croats make up the majority.

At much the same time, hooligans pelted a Slovak Protestant church and a Slovak cultural centre in Backa Palanka with stones.

In Djurdjevo, the windows of several houses belonging to ethnic Ruthenians were smashed, a cultural centre was damaged and street signs in Ruthenian language were torn down.

The Serb authorities mostly turn a blind eye to such violence. After the attack on the Slovak cultural centre and church and the Adventist church in Backa Palanka, the town’s prosecutor, Pavle Kolar, insisted the violence had no nationalist dimension to them.

Vladimir Jesic, a reporter from Novi Sad Apolo TV, believes this kind of attitude is part of the problem. The authorities insist on treating targeted attacks on minorities in Vojvodina as vandalism, refusing to accept a nationalist or sectarian motive, he says.

“The police and the judiciary treat smashing the windows of a church in the same way as smashing a kiosk’s windows,” Jesic said.

Zdravko Marjanovic, of the Society for Tolerance, a civic group based in Backa Palanka, where the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Yugoslav United Left, jointly hold power, says the recent attacks on churches are not isolated cases.

“Our mayor recently told an international gathering that the situation in the municipality was excellent,” Marjanovic said. “But this was not true. Politicians are trying to present the situation in a way that is far removed from the truth.”

Andras Agoston, leader of the Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians, says the “tragic events in March in Kosovo” have had their echo in Vojvodina.

He said harassment of minorities in Vojvodina had become an everyday affair, though most incidents, such as physical and verbal assault, threatening graffiti and attacks on cemeteries and other monuments, passed unnoticed.

Victims failed to report incidents to the police out of fear of reprisals, he said, for the police rarely caught or punished the perpetrators.

“On May 22, two Hungarians in Temerin were beaten up but no one from the media even reported it,” Agoston added.

Agoston ventured that minorities in Serbia were worse off now than at any time since the fall of Serbia’s nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic.

“Earlier, political representatives were targeted, while now ordinary people experience these problems,” Agoston said, accusing the government of “totally sidelining the ethnic minority issue”.

The rise in attacks on the Hungarian minority is provoking concern in Hungary itself, now an EU member state. Hungarian foreign minister Lazslo Kovacs telephoned Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica in early April to call on Belgrade to “take a firm stance with respect to violent incidents against the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina”.

Vojvodina has always been a multi-ethnic land, with over 20 registered ethnic communities in the 2002 census, making up more than one-third of the population.

Previously known for its ethnic harmony, it has been buffeted by the changes following the break-up of Yugoslavia, when the Milosevic regime began to play on Serbian nationalism.

A sinister straw in the wind was the ethnic cleansing of the Catholic village of Hrtkovci in 1992, where Serb refugees from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia drove out the mostly Croat residents with the support of the leader of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, SRS, Vojislav Seselj.

Many of the villages that the Serb refugees settled in the 1990s have become bastions of the SRS, whose candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, is expected to poll well in Vojvodina during Serbia’s June 13 presidential election.

Political moderates, such as Nenad Canak and Joszef Kasa, leaders of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina and the Alliance of Vojvodina's Hungarians, are struggling to check the spread of violence.

But if Nikolic wins the presidential race, many expect the position of minorities in Vojvodina - and throughout Serbia - to deteriorate further.

Aleksandra Vujic, a sociologist and political analyst from the Novi Sad Human Rights Centre, said violence against minorities in Vojvodina had increased dramatically, owing to a poorly developed civic consciousness.

Young people in Serbia, Vujic told IWPR, had a “need for identification”. He added, “They identify with the easiest thing, the nation, which in the Balkans relates to a religious background. The easiest thing is to be an Orthodox Serb and to see everything else as a threat.”

Vujic said police inactivity had worsened the trend, “The police are still confused when it comes to democratic principles and do not cope well with cases of inter-ethnic hatred.”

Though few believe Vojvodina will again see violence on the scale of the Milosevic era, many members of minority communities wonder if they have a long-term future in Serbia.

“If no action is taken, this could become a part of everyday life,” said Dinko Gruhonjic, a Croat from Novi Sad. “Members of certain groups, like Croats, will not feel comfortable and will want to move away.”

A Serb woman from Novi Sad, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR she was concerned for the future of her two children, studying at the local university, because of the rise in ultra-nationalist activity.

“Indifference towards the rise of nationalism in the Milosevic era took us to war,” she said. “This is why the upsurge of nationalism and of the Radicals should alarm us all, particularly those running this country.”

Jan Briza is a journalist with the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik. Tanja Matic is a regular IWPR contributor.

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