Vojvodina: A Second Kosovo?

A NATO land attack via Hungary could be as disastrous for Vojvodina's national minorities as the bombing has been for Kosovo's Albanians.

Vojvodina: A Second Kosovo?

A NATO land attack via Hungary could be as disastrous for Vojvodina's national minorities as the bombing has been for Kosovo's Albanians.

Since NATO launched its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and Serb forces set out ethnically cleansing Kosovo of its Albanian population, rumour and speculation have been rife in Vojvodina, Serbia's northern province.

Its residents wonder whether Vojvodina is about to share the fate as Kosovo.

Much depends on factors over which people in the province have no control, in particular on actions by the NATO alliance and Belgrade's response. However, most agree that if NATO decides to launch a land offensive against Yugoslavia via the north through Hungary, now a member of the alliance, the consequences for Vojvodina's national minorities may be as catastrophic as for Kosovo's Albanians.

NATO guarantees for the territorial security of countries bordering Yugoslavia--which have been reinforced by US President Bill Clinton--are of little practical value for the national minorities within Vojvodina, in particular the Hungarians who are the most numerous, who might yet find themselves at the mercy of Serb nationalists.

Hungarians in the provincial capital, Novi Sad, have already begun to experience growing Serb hostility. Some have been thrown out of the bunkers where they sought shelter during the bombing. They have been told bluntly, "There is no place for you in the shelters, since the bombs are coming from your country." Others have been cursed in the street and ostracised by their neighbours.

Thus far such incidents have been isolated. And in what is Yugoslavia's most ethnically mixed territory, there have also been signs of cross-community solidarity, with some people, for example, speaking out against the expulsions from the shelters.

But pessimists fear that such abuse is a sign of what is to come, not only for Hungarians but also for Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and Czechs. This is especially the case since, after the destruction of the bridges on the Danube, many Serbs believe that NATO is attempting to sever Vojvodina from Serbia.

In the shelters, in the streets and in the coffee shops, people speculate about a possible carve-up of the province. According to one popular theory, NATO will reward its allies in the region by giving Hungary the Backa region, Croatia the Srem, and Romania the Banat area - each one a different region each bordering the respective country.

Josef Kasa, mayor of Subotica and leader of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, warned Budapest before the bombing campaign got under way that the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina may suffer if Hungary, as a NATO member, played an active role in the military campaign against Yugoslavia.

In mid-March, when it became clear that NATO planned to launch its campaign, Kasa travelled to Budapest to seek assurances from Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi that, in the event of war, Hungary would stay out.

On his return to Yugoslavia, Kasa stated that he had gone to Hungary on his own initiative, not at Belgrade's behest, and that his only motivation was a desire to contribute to peace in the region. Moreover, since the NATO offensive got under way, he has on several occasions condemned the bombing campaign and appealed to NATO to halt its attacks on Serbia.

Officially, Belgrade has not responded to Kasa's initiatives. The opposition Democratic Party of Serbia has, by contrast, assessed Kasa's conduct as "worthy of respect". It has also urged the Serbian parliament to look positively at proposals made by the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians for reform in Vojvodina to improve the status of both the Hungarians and the other national minorities.

Like Kosovo, Vojvodina was stripped of its autonomous status at the end of the 1980s. In late 1998, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians published a discussion paper called "Agreement on the Political Framework of Self-Rule in Vojvodina". The proposal was ignored by Belgrade, but endorsed by the Reformist Democratic Party and other democratic parties in Vojvodina. It has also received support from the Coalition Sumadija and Coalition Sandzak, two regional groupings that work together closely with parties in Vojvodina.

Since the beginning of NATO's campaign, several thousand non-Serbs are believed to have left Vojvodina rather than risk bombing, conscription, or the possibility of ethnic cleansing.

There are no precise figures, although most are presumed to be Hungarians. But Slovaks, Romanians, Croats and others have also been leaving. (The Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians estimates that some 40,000 Vojvodina Hungarians moved out earlier in the decade during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Croats were forcibly expelled during these earlier wars.)

According to the 1991 census, Vojvodina's 2 million inhabitants included some 16 different communities. Of these, some 340,000, or 17 per cent of the province's population, were Hungarians. There were also some 75,000 Croats, 64,000 Slovaks, 38,000 Romanians, 24,000 Roma and 18,000 Ruthenians. Hence the importance of inter-ethnic tolerance, for which the province has historically been known. And the extreme risks.

The author is an independent journalist in Novi Sad.

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