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Serbo Journal

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Vojvodina: Multi-ethnic Jewel of Serbia

As Montenegro seceded from Serbia, autonomist movements in the Vojvodina region are likely to strengthen. Vojvodina wants back those rights that it enjoyed before Slobodan Milosevic. The Serbian government is prepared to reopen the constitution issue. Last commission could not agree on a decentralisation plan. The main topic of disagreement was the autonomy of Vojvodina. Will it be different this time?

From 2003 to 2006

In 2003, an opinion poll conducted by the Skan agency from Novi Sad (capital of Vojvodina) asked the citizens of Vojvodina what status they would like to have for their province. 34 percent of them demanded autonomy as it was in 1974. 20.2 percent wanted more autonomy in Serbia, but less than in 1974. 21.3 percent was satisfied with the level of autonomy as it was. As a whole, 75.5 percent of them supported autonomy within Serbia.

Those were the answers in 2003. Since then the conjecture has very changed in Serbia. The negotiations on the final status of Kosovo started. The outcome of the talks, which the international community would like to conclude by the end of this year, is more or less decided. On 21st May, Europe welcomed a new independent state, Montenegro. Could these events change the political course in Vojvodina?

Last week, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina leader Nenad Canak, commenting on the independence of Montenegro, stated: "Serbia no longer has any excuses. It is obvious that no one wants to live with this kind of Serbia in a union, and it is time for the people in Serbia to ask themselves why this is so".

Vojvodina: Ethnic wonderland of Serbia

Vojvodina is the most developed part of Serbia. The province that is situated in the southern part of the Central Danube Plain includes some of the richest agricultural land in the country. The region is often referred as the "breadbasket of Serbia".

Vojvodina is an ethnic wonderland. According to the 2001 census, the population of Vojvodina is 2.013.889. There are more than 26 different ethnicities living in the province: Serbs (65.05 percent), Hungarians (14.28 percent), Slovaks (2.79 percent), Croats (2.8 percent), Yugoslavs (2.45 percent), Montenegrins (1.75 percent), Romanians (1.5 percent), Roma (1.43 percent) and others (7.97 percent) such as Muslims, Ukrainians, Bunjevci, Sokci, Macedonians, Albanians, Slovenes, etc. There are no fewer than six official languages: Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Rumanian, Croatian and Rusyn.

The fact that all these ethnic communities can live alongside with one another also prove the high level of ethnic tolerance among these peoples. More than 200 newspapers, magazines and reviews are published in eight different languages: Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian, Rumanian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Roma language.

Political panorama

In Vojvodina there are two kinds of political party:

- Those regionalist parties that demand more autonomy for Vojvodina as a whole, and stronger powers for local government. The most popular of these parties is League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV) led by Nenad Canak.

- Those Hungarian parties that also demand more autonomy but also the creation of "Hungarian Regional Autonomy", a separate autonomous region in northern part of Vojvodina where the Hungarians make up majority. The most popular of those is Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM) led by Josef Kasa. Other three small Hungarian parties even make comparisons between Vojvodina and Kosovo. These are Democratic Community of Vojvodina Hungarians, Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians and Hungarians' Civic Alliance. In an open letter to Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica in December 2005, leaders of these three parties even demanded that talks on the status of the Hungarians of Vojvodina be held in parallel with the negotiations on the final status of Kosovo.

Note that there are no political parties in Vojvodina, which plead for independence. All of them demand more or less autonomy within Serbia.

The current ruling coalition in the Vojvodina parliament is composed of Democratic Party (DS), United for Vojvodina (coalition of several regionalist parties led by LSV), Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM) and the political movement "Force of Serbia". Current president of the government is Bojan Pajtic (DS) and president of parliament is Bojan Kostres (LSV).

Legacy of Tito

Vojvodina, which was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, became an autonomous province within the Republic of Serbia after 1946. The province, which until 1974 enjoyed a small level of autonomy within Serbia, was granted after that date extensive rights of self-rule under the new Yugoslav constitution. Vojvodina was defined as one of the subjects of the Yugoslav federation and given voting rights equivalent to Serbia itself on the country's collective presidency.

That was typical of Tito, who used to give with one hand and take with the other. After he violently put an end to the "Croatian Spring" and purged the Croat Party of nationalists, which was perceived as a victory of Serbia, he then resettled the balance by depraving Serbia of more authority over Kosovo and Vojvodina. That decision caused a public outcry in Serbia, which the Serbian leadership began to "rectify" as soon as Tito died.

Under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, the autonomy of Vojvodina was abolished. Vojvodina was no longer a subject of the Yugoslav federation, but again only the autonomous province of Serbia, with small level of autonomy. After the fall of Milosevic in 2000, talks for reforms in Vojvodina began. In 2002, the omnibus law increased the level of the province's autonomy. However, promises to restore local powers still await clarification as part of an ongoing constitutional review.

Immediately after the independence of Montenegro, Bojan Pajtic stated that "Vojvodina must receive clear guarantees for a functional autonomy within the charter of the next Serbian constitution". However, last commission could not agree on a decentralisation plan exactly because they could not agree on the autonomy of Vojvodina. As on 31st May Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica announced that work on the constitutional proposal will soon be resumed, one of the frequently asked questions is whether the Vojvodina question will be solved at last.

Decentralisation is the key

The project of "Hungarian Regional Autonomy" finds big support in neither the current ruling coalition in Vojvodina nor Serbia. Vojvodina's citizens are not keen to vote for minority parties. The most popular parties are Democratic Party (DS), Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and LSV. Another problem is that exactly what the spokesmen of this project mean by autonomy is not very clear. And the parallelism with Kosovo is not convincing. According to DS and LSV, "the province as a whole is the proper framework for ethnic minorities to exercise minority rights". And it would be ridiculous to think that SRS could have ever accepted such a proposal.

What the province really wants is the increase of the current level of autonomy. Accroding to Bojan Pajtic, more than 90 percent of Vojvodina's citizens have a very strong regional identity and the future constitution should respect this fact: "Vojvodina must have guarantees for a legislative government, as well as the right to its own budget and properties. Serbia cannot adopt a European constitution if it continues to ignore the demands of the Vojvodina citizens. We are asking for a decentralisation of Serbia, autonomy for Vojvodina and a stronger local self-administration".

Pajtic assured that the Kosovo question will not affect Vojvodina: "What will happen in Kosovo is not going to affect Vojvodina and its status within Serbia, because there is no political will for separation from Serbia". Vojvodina has never sought independence, but a well-defined and guaranteed autonomy. In this regard, the province expects that the new constitution will restore its autonomy.

Bojan Kostres stated that "with the Montenegrin referendum now out of the way, it is time for Serbia to focus on its own problems". It is indeed high time that Serbia adopts a new constitution. One of the reasons why the constitution is still being drafted since the fall of Milosevic is the question of Vojvodina's autonomy, over which there is no consensus in Serbia. However the decentralisation obviously will be the key of a lasting ethnic peace in the country. As Kostunica put it, "Serbia must adopt a new constitution in order to maintain a functional nation".

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