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August 3, 2001
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 502
Vojvodina's Autonomy

What's Eating Vojvodina's Serbs

by Nenad Lj. Stefanovic

It's been almost nine months since the beginning of political changes in Serbia, and the issue of Vojvodina's autonomy has not yet come to the agenda. Instead of that, Slobodan Milosevic, The Hague, Montenegro, the south of Serbia, elections in Kosovo, Zastava of Kragujevac, and even the inclusion of religious studies in the school curriculum, seems to have determined the priorities and speed of the work of the new authorities. Last Wednesday, leaders of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, the Alliance of Magyars in Vojvodina and the Reformists of Vojvodina, Nenad Canak, Joszef Kasa and Mile Isakov, decided to speed up the process. Since there is no more time to wait and haggle, the three Vojvodina's politicians demanded that the DOS (the Democratic Opposition of Serbia) Presidency put the discussion on the reaffirmation of Vojvodina's autonomy on agenda by August 3rd as the latest deadline. The attitude that, according to some, was most eye-poking was that in case the new authorities' carelessness, the whole issue would become and international affair. According to Joszef Kasa's additional explanation, the appeal for the international community's interference would mean any form of foreign aid, except for the military one.

A good part of the public welcomed this 'sudden' offensive of the three leaders as a 'blackmailing policy' that has its roots in Novi Sad. There was some mention of separatism, then the Novi Sad 'black trio', the lack of solidarity by those who don't want to wait for the whole country to stabilise and finally define its state borders. The leaders of the coalition received the strict demand from Novi Sad at the last session of the DOS Presidency, but they decided not to discuss the Vojvodina issue on August 3rd, as demanded, but three weeks later. President of the Alliance of Vojvodina Magyars (SVM), Joszef Kasa accepted such a decision quite reasonably, with a comment that it is in the interest of Vojvodina to begin the negotiations, and not to create a conflicting situation because of some missed deadline. 'If we could wait for ten months, then we can prolong the waiting for another week or two', said Kasa.

Leader of the Reformists of Vojvodina, Mile Isakov, is however convinced that the deterring of the mentioned discussion is nothing but a continuation of 'Serbia's spiteful policy', originally promoted by Slobodan Milosevic. In an interview for VREME, Isakov claims that by putting off the Vojvodina issue, the things will just get worse and the price of the province's imminent autonomy will be much higher. Asked what is the concrete meaning of 'higher price', Isakov answers indirectly by reminding us that out of eight federal units of the former Yugoslavia, even seven managed to create some political interests, thanks to their political subjectivity under the federal state. All republics became independent states, and Kosovo, to which Milan Milutinovic offered a 'real autonomy' in Rambouillet, moved in that direction. Only Vojvodina is not permitted to develop its own political subjectivity, which was banned by Slobodan Milosevic's illicit political takeover. President of the Reformists of Vojvodina warns us that at the same time that such 'subjectivity' is a historical fact which nobody can deny, since it belongs to what a famous Novi Sad dweller calls 'has been left to us from our ancestors'.  

'If the time for restitution of misappropriated possessions has come for everyone, why would Vojvodina be exempt in any way? Why would the discontinuity with previous political affairs be valid in all cases but Vojvodina's? The new Federal Government has recently been formed, in which the lesser Montenegro got hold of five ministerial posts, just like Serbia. Hence, Montenegro with 600,000 inhabitants holds half of the Federal Government offices, and Vojvodina, with two million citizens, and economically much more advanced, has nothing. All that only because of Montenegro's political subjectivity from the times of the SFRY', says Isakov, adding his personal remark that 'someone' from the new regime intentionally pushes the issue of Vojvodina's autonomy behind the margins, so that people do not get used to thinking of Vojvodina as something special. Isakov, Canak and others have been presenting the same position on the subject for a long time, but only last week did they put it forward in the form of an ultimatum. In Novi Sad nobody hides that it was the last moment to refer to that subject in a more apparent form. In the existing constitution, Vojvodina is hardly mentioned, and, in the opinion of the representatives of autonomy as the only good option, such a thing must be avoided.

It is more than clear today that the idea of autonomy has survived all these years, during which Milosevic and Seselj were winning the elections thanks to their anti-autonomy programs. There are a lot of candidates for Vojvodina's Joszef Strauss, who remind the rest of the population that Vojvodina, with its 28% of the whole population, fills 40% of the state budget, and that the official Belgrade is more than tightfisted in its relation towards the province. The most radical among them (he can also sing very well) is Nenad Canak, leader of the LSV - the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, who still insists on putting an end on the 'pilfering' of Vojvodina, and who always repeats that he does not intend to beg neither Djindjic nor Kostunica 'to give him back everything Milosevic had stolen from him'. Also in passing, Canak supports the federalisation of Serbia and announces that Vojvodina's autonomy might also be treated as a 'historical stop' on the way to a full independence. The pollsters claim that the latter is much more preferred among the questioned part of the populace.

The VREME interviewee and one of the signatories of the latest 'Novi Sad resolution', Mile Isakov, is of the opinion that the basis of the claims for autonomy lies in the economic sphere. The leader of RV - the Reformists of Vojvodina - mentions that the new Law on Privatisation is contrary to all that DOS used to propagate in the past and expressed an open doubt that the Serbian Government will put on the market the entire Vojvodina's property, which would thwart its pretensions towards reaching the status of autonomy.

DSS - the Democratic Party of Serbia, which is so far the first opposition party in the Parliament of Vojvodina, strongly opposes the restitution of state attributes to Vojvodina, as well as the resolution that would give this province legal, executive and juridical authorities (like the Constitution from 1974). Commenting the latest news from Novi Sad, member of the Central Committee of DSS, Arsen Kurjacki stresses that they are much different than all the ones before. 'The previous reactions by the leaders of those three parties have been interpreted as simple provocations, nothing else. Now there is also the threat of internationalisation', says Kurjacki. He also claims that the pro-autonomy parties are using blackmails and threats in their communication, and criticises their lack of patience. Only when the state and its borders are completely defined, will they have an opportunity to resolve some particular issues. Kurjacki admits that DOS had undertaken to redefine the future status of Vojvodina in a democratic way, although there is still no definite consensus on the matter within the coalition. As he claims, DOS interceded in favour of regionalisation of the country and insists on such management on the whole territory of Serbia.

Mile Isakov, who supports the conception of autonomy in three phases (sticking to the authorities allowed buy the current constitution, then the change of laws which keep a tight rein on autonomy and, finally, the introduction of a new constitution, which would redefine the position of Vojvodina in the long run), is against people from DSS due to their lack of sense for any kind of changes. It is odd, says Isakov, that a party which favours a legalist approach to such extent, does not wish to support even those changes and solutions that are in compliance with the current constitution.

On the other hand, DS - the Democratic Party, has recently been proclaimed as the 'autonomy supporters' natural ally'. However, Djindjic's democrats are now found fault with because as soon as they crossed the Danube southwards, they would forget about their pro-autonomy positions.

Vojvodina's autonomy will definitely be among the topics of discussion within DOS by the end of the month. In spite of all warnings about the higher price to be paid due to too much prolongation, nobody really believes that the future of the northern Serbian province will be dramatically altered within the next few weeks.

There is, of course, a question, what will happen if Belgrade refuses to meet the demands of Vojvodina's three parties, that is if the latter appear to be short of some more persuasive means to influence the official authorities to make some radical move. Nenad Canak has also mentioned the idea of referendum, the motorways blockades and mass rallies, if things don't get a different shape in the near future. Mile Isakov says there are a lot of ideas, but, at the beginning, the accent will be put on all legal and institutional means of political revolt.

Those politicians that dispatched the ultimatum to Belgrade last week, emphasise that there is no need for irritation and annoyance about the whole Vojvodina story, since it is just one of the many conflicts of political interests, which occur so often. The novelist Laszlo Vegel has recently said that 'without Vojvodina, Belgrade would be able to bring the process of its modernisation to an end', i.e. that Belgrade needs a competitive Vojvodina in order not to remain just a provincial town in Europe. This thesis is quite accurate, just as the warning of Nebojsa Popov, an associate of the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory, who is afraid of the danger that one democratic question might turn into a territorial one due to politicians' negligence. Something of the kind has been seen in these territories many times.

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