Groundbreaking Conference on Voivodina’s Autonomy Held at Washington Capitol Building

On June 28, 2001, while the extradition of Milosevic to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague was taking place, the U.S. Capitol was the scene of an international seminar on the importance of restoring autonomy to the province of Voivodina.

The Seminar, “Restoration of Voivodina’s Autonomy: A Model of Multi-Ethnic Stability,” was co-sponsored by the Hungarian American Coalition and the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation.Coalition Chairman, Edith Lauer opened the event by saying: “This is a historic opportunity to examine concerns and obstacles Voivodina faces in its aspiration for autonomy, the rule of law, and establishment of a free-market economy.”

In his overview of developments in former Yugoslavia, Center for Strategic International Studies Executive Director, Janusz Bugajski, pointed out that even after the fall of Milosevic and the democratic elections, little progress has been made in restoring or addressing Voivodina’s autonomous status. He urged that “aspirations of Voivodinians across the ethnic spectrum … be acknowledged and resolved.” Mr. Bugajski proposed that “a joint international team …be established to assist the governments in Belgrade and Novi Sad to formulate a new constitutional arrangement for the territory, whether as an autonomous region or as regional unit in a greatly decentralized Serbia.”

Dr. Michael Haltzel, professional staff member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, greeted participants of the Voivodina Seminar on behalf of Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Committee. Dr. Haltzel recognized the positive role that Hungarian minorities played both in Rumania and Slovakia in the process of democratization and observance of minority rights.

HHRF President, László Hámos, moderator of the first panel remarked: “A surprising dimension of Voivodina may be that in the heart of a region so terribly racked by ethnic-based hostilities and violence may lie the very key to long-term stability, the model of interethnic harmony.”

Prof. Charles Ingrao of Purdue University provided a most interesting historic overview of the Balkans. In his opinion, “once a particular group perceives itself as a distinct community, sustained attempts to deny its individuality and forcibly assimilate it never resolve the problem.”

Vice President László Józsa of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Voivodina, stressed the multi-ethnic political partnership that he and Mr. Canak represent within DOS, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia. Although DOS gained a political victory by toppling the Milosevic regime, he said: “long-awaited political changes have still not happened.” He called attention to the three-tiered autonomy concept adopted by his party, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Voivodina.

Nenad Canak, President of the Voivodina Assembly declared, “Voivodina can be a champion, a living example in Yugoslavia of a democratic, multi-ethnic society.” To demonstrate the differences in attitude between Belgrade and Novi Sad, Mr. Canak said while the Voivodina Assembly passed a law on the use of minority languages, Belgrade voted it down. He stressed the importance of privatization, but only after Belgrade returned property that rightfully and legally belongs to the province of Voivodina. “Experience in Central and Eastern Europe clearly shows that the legal framework must exist first before privatization can be successfully carried out.”

Tibor Purger, correspondent for the Voivodina newspaper, Magyar Szó, said Voivodina should not be made to wait for the settlement of the status of Kosovo and Montenegro. He also pointed out that the concept of autonomy for Voivodina and ethnic autonomy are complementary and can be simultaneously realized.

Radio Free Europe Director, Paul Goble, recalled examples of struggles for self-determination in the past decade, and how U.S. policy makers often failed to recognize their legitimacy. With only 250 nations and over 5000 ethnic groups in existence, he predicted the struggle for self-determination will surely continue in the future. He proposed that in addition to democracy, the concept of constitutionalism should be applied in judging the legitimacy of newly formed regimes.

The afternoon panel focused on policy alternatives vis-a-vis former Yugoslavia. Ian Brzezinski, Senior Professional Staff Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stressed the commitment of the Congress to “conditionality of assistance to Yugoslavia,” which included not only Milosevic’s transfer to Hague, and the release of Albanian prisoners, but also taking steps to protect minority rights and the rule of law. Recalling the unfortunate misspending of millions of dollars of aid to Russia, Mr. Brzezinski expressed the hope that assistance to Yugoslavia would be more effectively targeted. In answer to a question about how could more US attention be focused on restoration of Voivodina’s autonomy, Mr. Brzezinski suggested the message should be sent that “Belgrade needs to react democratically to legitimate demands from the elected officials of Voivodina.”

Kurt Bassuener, Director of the Democratization Policy Institute, saw the question of Voivodina’s autononomy not as a minority rights, but as a rule-of-law issue. Although Mr. Kostunica is a legitimately elected leader, Mr. Bassuener considers him an extreme nationalist. He expressed criticism about the US policy of supporting a stronger Yugoslavia. “Voivodina should be able to choose its constitutional status; as Montenegro should be able to decide about its own independence.”

Next, Prof. Julie Mertus also expressed strong doubts about Kostunica’s desire for democratic reform, as “his election acquired legitimacy for former nationalists,” she said. Her list of true reforms includes the following: normalization of Voivodina’s status as soon as possible; normalization of relations with neighbor countries; reintegration into the international community; and the creation of the culture of lawfulness.

Coalition Board Member and panel moderator, Frank Koszorus, Jr., noted that “the distinguished panelists affirmed the desirability of crisis prevention, not crisis management, which in the context of Voivodina translates into the restoration of the province’s autonomy and respect for minority rights and local self-government.”

Hungarian Ambassador, Géza Jeszenszky, stressed that Hungary’s interest in advancing democratization in Voivodina would benefit all ethnic groups of the province, and it coincides with U.S. interests for stability in the Balkans.

The Voivodina Seminar was attended by about 60 people, including staff members of Congress, the State Department, the Washington NGO community, and representatives of the media. The Hungarian American Coalition and the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation are grateful to all the benefactors of the Seminar: Stephen Füzesi; Hungarian Americans for Human Rights in Délvidék; Hungarian Reformed Federation of America; The Lauer Charitable Fund; National Committee of Hungarians from Slovakia; George Olgyay; and The William Penn Association.

The Hungarian American Coalition is a nationwide non-profit organization that promotes public understanding and awareness of Hungarian American issues.

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