Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Vojvodina's Moderate Autonomy

Vojvodina's political leaders, from many ethnic groups, seek more local control. But unlike Kosovo Albanians, they do not question their position within Serbia.
By a correspondent

A recent Serbian language broadcast on Radio France International suggested that Serbia might stand to lose more than just Kosovo, since "extremists in Sandzak and Vojvodina" were looking to break away from Belgrade.


The commentary went on to claim that nationalists in neighbouring countries were likewise advocating the "plucking of Serbia" and incorporated the claim that more than one million Romanians were living in Vojvodina.


Such speculation, implying that Vojvodina may turn into the next Kosovo, is ill-informed if not downright mischievous. While the Belgrade regime has been peddling such rumours to intimidate the region's minority parties and their leaders, stories carried in the West appear to be more a case of simple over-reporting in pursuit of a good story.


The flat and arable region of Vojvodina which lies just north of Belgrade is a stronghold of the Serbian opposition and is populated by a mix of ethnic Hungarians, Romanians and Slovakians and others including Serbs. While both regions enjoyed autonomy under Tito, comparisons between Vojvodina and Kosovo can be taken too far.


Serbians are not the minority grouping in Vojvodina and ethnic Hungarians do not dominate numerically as the Albanians do in Kosovo. There is moreover a great disparity in economic terms between the two regions. Vojvodina is the most prosperous area of Yugoslavia; Kosovo, the poorest.


Contrary to the report by Radio France, according to the last census carried out in 1991, fewer than 39,800 Romanians live in Vojvodina, or about two percent of the region's total population of two million.


No Romanian political parties have ever suggested they harbour territorial claims toward Serbia. The same applies to the parties in Hungary, whose national minority in Vojvodina according to the same census comprise 340,000 people.


At the same time, none of the political parties in Vojvodina have exhibited separatist tendencies. While they do have different views and concerns regarding the kind of autonomy they wish to see granted, no party has actually questioned the position of Vojvodina within the state of Serbia.


Claims that there are extremists in Vojvodina, who now see the chance to "pluck" Serbia naked are not only inaccurate, but dangerous for those of the population who are members of the 16 recognised national minorities. Such claims are even more hazardous for those people who are politically active in these parties and who have been advocating a return to the level of autonomy the province enjoyed prior to a "patriotic" change in September 1990.


Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and deputy prime minister in the Serbian government, has stated recently, that the "conditions have been created for the arrest of Nenad Canak," the leader of the League of Social Democrats of


Vojvodina (LSV). Canak is one of the most prominent advocates of autonomy. That threat is more serious if one takes into account that Canak has already been labelled as a traitor by the pro-regime media.


Just two weeks short of the start of the NATO campaign, Canak published an LSV policy document which called for a change in the Serbian constitution and a redefinition of the "politically and economically unsustainable status of Vojvodina."


According his paper, Serbia should be redesigned to be a federal state comprising the following federal units: Vojvodina, Sumadija, Southeastern Serbia, the city of Belgrade with its surroundings, Sandzak or the Raska region, and Kosovo. Vojvodina would enjoy the status of the republic in that state. The federalisation of Serbia, would, according to the LSV, represent a big step towards the stabilisation of the Serbian state.


While it has the most radical demands, the LSV is not alone in its desire to redefine the current constitutional position of Vojvodina. Serbian and Hungarian political parties in the region are also calling for the decentralisation and democratisation of Serbia.


As Vojvodinan parties disagree over the level of autonomy they should enjoy, so there is no agreement on how autonomy can realistically be achieved. These issues have polarised the political forces and led to the creation of party alliances - though surprisingly enough, these do not follow ethnic lines.


The League of Social Democrats and the Reformist Democratic Party of Vojvodina, which are coalition partners, are politically much closer to the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians than the majority of other political parties of that national minority. The political parties of Vojvodina Hungarians are deeply divided.


Last year, the biggest Hungarian party, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, published its own paper which proposed precisely defined rights of the national minorities which included the recognition of Hungarian as an official language and the right to be educated in Hungarian. A number of parties lent their support to the document. It was ignored by the Belgrade authorities.


In recent years, the pro-regime media have often compared Kosovo with Vojvodina - citing the latter as an example of inter-ethnic tolerance that Kosovo Albanians would do well to follow. While it was not in fact the case, Belgrade regularly stressed that national minorities in Vojvodina enjoyed minority rights at the highest European standards.


According to one empirical study, published by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, the chiefs of police in all 45 municipalities in Vojvodina are either Serbs or Montenegrins. The majority of policemen are likewise Serbs and Montenegrins. So, too, it was found, for the presidents of the courts, banks and businesses - even in the municipalities where ethnic Hungarians comprise the majority population.


Indicative of the authorities' position, placards for government business should by law be in all of the official languages and alphabets in use in province, but despite repeated complaints, the sign over the entrance to the Executive Council, which is the local government, is only in Serbian and in Cyrillic.


The author is a journalist in Novi Sad whose identity has been concealed.