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Vojvodina Seeks Autonomy

Provincial authorities in Vojvodina present Belgrade with demands for greater autonomy
By Mihajlo Ramac

The regional assembly in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina is calling for the restoration of autonomy stripped away by former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic over ten years ago.


Belgrade's new ruling DOS coalition - which includes three Vojvodina-based parties - promised a return to self-rule in the run-up to last year's electoral victory over the Milosevic regime.


But achieving the level of autonomy enjoyed before Milosevic's move to centralise power in Serbia will be no easy task.


Belgrade views such moves as another step towards the disintegration of the republic. A compromise is therefore expected, with Vojvodina reclaiming some powers, but putting aside demands for full autonomy.


The Vojvodina assembly passed the autonomy proposals, which required changes to over a hundred laws, by a majority vote on March 2. The self-rule petition was then sent to the Serbian parliament for consideration.


Members of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, voted against the autonomy laws in the Novi Sad assembly. The party has consistently claimed autonomy would lead to the break-up of Serbia.


The DSS prefers a regional division of Serbia, with Vojvodina enjoying equal status with other parts of the republic. But the DSS has yet to reveal details of its proposals.


Keen to avoid accusations of separatism, supporters of autonomy are at pains to point out that province's status needs to be resolved within the framework of Yugoslavia and Serbia.


The provincial assembly has therefore proposed that defence, state security, the monetary and customs systems, foreign policy and the judiciary would remain the preserve of the Yugoslav government.


The authors of the March 2 proposal suggest the province takes over control of pensions, disability allowances, health care, children's welfare, education, media, agriculture, national minorities, language and cultural life.


The autonomy issue is expected to provoke harsh words within the DOS coalition. A meeting of the coalition's leaders is scheduled to take place in Novi Sad in mid-March. They will discuss the autonomy plan.


There is a clear divide between the Belgrade-based DOS parties and the three Vojvodina coalition parties.


As part of the alliance's common agenda to overthrow Milosevic, it openly advocated "full autonomy" for Vojvodina.


But where the Novi Sad-based parties took this to mean executive, economic and judicial autonomy, others adopted a more woolly interpretation, saying these issues would be discussed after the December elections.


Immediately after the ballot, however, Vojvodina began its push for self-rule.


The new regional authorities sent a motion to the Serbian parliament demanding changes to eight laws relating to Vojvodina's official language, trade surplus and agricultural land. Meanwhile, eight municipalities with a predominantly Hungarian population drew up plans for joint finances and institutions.


This put pressure on Novi Sad to take a harder line with Belgrade, and sent a signal to the latter that concessions would have to be made.


Although not in breach of Serbian law, which does provide for cooperation between municipal authorities, newspapers in Belgrade interpreted the move by the Hungarian-inhabited municipalities as a further step towards autonomy.


Belgrade's hostility to full autonomy became clear in mid-February when Nenad Canak, president of the Vojvodina assembly and member of the DOS coalition, hinted a referendum might be called to ask the province's population what they thought about the issue.


Kostunica's party was incensed. The DSS said a plebiscite was the first step towards Vojvodina's secession from Serbia.


Following the March 2 vote in Novi Sad, DSS members from Vojvodina met Kostunica. The president's office refused to comment on the meeting, but the party's coordinator in the province, Igor Kurjacki, said the autonomy question could not be settled before the status of Serbia within Yugoslavia was resolved.


"We have to observe certain constitutional procedures," Kurjacki said. "The constitution requires changes in order to solve the current territorial and political situation."


In other words, the whole issue should be put on hold.


Canak takes a different view. "Constitutional changes in Serbia make sense only if they resolve the question of Vojvodina," he said.


The people of Vojvodina are unlikely to be fobbed off. Most hark back to a "golden era" between 1974 and 1989 when the province had its own constitution and economic independence. National income was equivalent to the more developed former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia, and higher than Serbia.


Since 1989, Vojvodina's finances have gone to Belgrade. The province's economy and agriculture were virtually destroyed by the loss of traditional markets in Slovenia, Croatia and Western Europe following the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.


Opinion polls indicate 60 per cent of people blame the downturn on centralisation. A March 7 poll conducted by the Scan agency on behalf of the Vojvodina assembly's executive council estimates 60 per cent favour full autonomy.


But Dr Stanko Pihler, a professor of law at Novi Sad University, believes this is a long way off. The most influential political parties and leaders in Belgrade oppose autonomy for the province, Pihler points out. The international community is also reluctant for this issue to come onto the agenda.


Pihler believes the issue will rumble on for some time, while economic integration with the rest of Europe will encourage decentralisation and develop Vojvodina as a European region.


Belgrade will no doubt accept some of the March 2 demands and achieve a compromise with Vojvodina. But full autonomy is not on the cards, at least, not in the near future.


Mihajlo Ramac is a regular IWPR contributor.


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