“Restoration of Vojvodina’s Autonomy: A Model of Multiethnic Stability”

 Janusz Bugajski

Good morning and thank you to the organizers, the Hungarian American Coalition and the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation for arranging this timely event. I was asked to provide an overview of the Vojvodina question and to set the tone for the day. I will therefore simply offer six points for expansion and elaboration, which I believe, lie at the core of the current problem and the future solution.

First, Context: The province of Vojvodina is the last former federal unit of the ex-Yugoslavia whose status has not been placed on the international agenda; indeed, the question of Vojvodina's future has been avoided by both the European Union and the United States. It must be remembered that Milošević launched his rise to absolute power in Vojvodina when he first squashed the province's autonomy in 1988 before he turned to dealing with all the other federal units to promote his ambitions. It should also be remembered that in 1992, Vojvodina's citizens were not consulted on the creation of Milošević's Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) or the passage of the FRY constitution. And indeed since the ouster of Milošević, the autonomy of Vojvodina has not been restored by the federal or republican governments in Belgrade and the Milošević structures have in essence been preserved.

Second, Conflict: The wars of Yugoslav succession shifted the population structure in Vojvodina as many Hungarians and other minorities left the province or were pressured to emigrate, especially the best educated, professionals, and young people. Approximately, 50,000 Hungarians or one sixth of the Hungarian population evacuated the region. Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina were resettled in Vojvodina and during Milošević's reign paramilitary nationalists were also active harassing and threatening minority leaders. Despite this, ethnic relations did not deteriorate between the traditional Vojvodinian residents. Indeed, a multi-ethnic ethos and regional identity has been preserved in Vojvodina despite Belgrade's incitement of ethnic division and conflict. Unfortunately, there remain very few such areas on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

Third, Standstill: Since the fall of Milošević and despite the new democratically elected administrations at both federal and republic levels, little progress has been made in restoring or addressing Vojvodina's status. While the elected Vojvodina Assembly has pressed for provincial autonomy and self-administration, Belgrade and especially the federal government has opposed any meaningful decentralization of the FRY. Indeed, frequent complaints are heard in Novi Sad about Serbian centralism and the exploitation of Vojvodina's resources without any investment in the province. For example, some have called Vojvodinian agriculture "the largest social and humanitarian organization in Serbia." The meeting today should explore and examine the differing positions on Vojvodina's future status and its relations with Belgrade as proposed by the regional, republican and federal governments and the various minority populations.

Fourth, Status: With the status of Kosova still unresolved and the future of the FRY itself uncertain, Vojvodina simply can no longer be ignored. On the contrary, to prevent an escalation of tensions, the aspirations of Vojvodinians across the ethnic spectrum needs to be acknowledged and resolved. There are potential dangers ahead. For example, an economic downturn in Serbia could spur social unrest and political instability and even revive Serbian nationalist sentiments; it could also split the DOS coalition of which several Vojvodinian parties are members; and even provoke a conflict between Novi Sad and Belgrade. On the positive side, Belgrade's evident aspirations to join the European Union and to gain aid and investment may enable the EU to exert more influence in Belgrade to follow through on its pledges for democracy, the rule of law, minority rights, and decentralization.

Fifth, Internationalization: The future of Vojvodina understandably concerns all neighboring states, especially Hungary, Croatia, and Romania, each of which have co-ethnics in the province and are anxious over potential instabilities on their borders. While none of these states will want to be perceived as intervening in Vojvodina's internal affairs, they can potentially assist both Novi Sad and Belgrade in finding workable and acceptable solutions to the current political gridlock. And this brings me to my sixth point:

Sixth, Policy Recommendations: I am sure that more concrete recommendations and policy options will emerge during the course of the day. But I will offer just three initial suggestions:

  • One, a joint international team can 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. Decentralization and autonomy itself will necessitate constitutional changes in Serbia including the reduction of presidential powers, a buttressed parliamentary system, and the creation of an ombudsman's office. The powers and authority of an autonomous Vojvodinian government and its precise relations with Belgrade must thereby be clearly specified;
  • Two, a broad range of minority rights must be pursued that respect the traditions and aspirations of all ethnic groups. In this context, various degrees of self-administrative competencies and local self-government can be adopted without endangering the survival or integrity of the province;
  • Three, As the richest and most productive part of the current FRY, Vojvodina has a great deal of potential in terms of economic development. Mechanisms must be found to promote investment once economic autonomy and the devolution of centralized financial controls is assured. Steps toward Vojvodina's regional and European Union integration will assist all parties including Serbia itself. Vojvodina's neighbors can play an important role in this process to prevent a further brain drain from the province and stem the refugee outflow.


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Prof. Charles Ingrao

Of the eight Yugoslav republics and autonomous provinces that Josip Broz Tito created in 1974, only Vojvodina has remained free of war and interethnic conflict. One of the principal reasons is its location within a crescent of regions that have preserved domestic peace and, hence, relative anonymity within a central European world of ethnic conflict. This crescent stretches from the flat, fertile plains of Slavonia and Baranya through Vojvodina to the Banat and Transylvania, and into the forested mountains of Bukovina. It is a rich collection of territories, governed by five countries, that share two historical legacies.

First, all are immigrant societies resettled after the brutal absburg-Ottoman wars by colonists from all over Europe. Every central European language group contributed to the resettlement, which even included French, Italians and Catalans from the west and Armenians and Bulgarians from the core lands of the Ottoman empire. None were more diverse than Vojvodina and the neighboring Banat, which spoke perhaps two dozen languages, though all parts of this fertile crescent of colonization hosted numerous ethnic and religious groups. Second, most of these regions were politically self-contained, with at least some level of regional autonomy. The fortuitous combination of ethnic diversity and local autonomy preserved and strengthened traditions of toleration and coexistence that have lasted to the present day. Hence, the virtual anonymity of each of these regions in a world that hears and knows virtually nothing about any of them (except, perhaps, the well-known fictional attributes of Transylvania!).

It has, however, been the misfortune of these and other multiethnic regions like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia that they also border on culturally homogeneous areas that have no palpable tradition of ethnic diversity or regional autonomy. Instead, historic areas like Inner Serbia have provided a critical mass for nationalist leaders who embraced as their manifest destiny the western European model of a highly centralized, ethnically uniform nation-state. Over the past two centuries these areas have acted as magnets that have continually attempted to attract those of their ethnic cohorts who inhabited multiethnic areas, straining them out from the complex but delicate matrix of peoples with whom they had peacefully coexisted. Thus the tragic example of Bosnia, which has been pulled apart by Serbia and Croatia, or Transylvania, which has pitted Romania and Hungary against one another – even as the Transylvanians themselves continue to live together in an atmosphere that has been largely free of interethnic violence.

Vojvodina's modern history has been dominated by the struggle between two nation-states centered in Budapest and Belgrade (although both Zagreb and Bucharest have also occasionally nibbled along its periphery). The mid-nineteenth century marked the beginning of that struggle as Lajos Kossuth's revolutionary Hungarian nation-state refused autonomy to its Serb and other non-Magyar peoples. The immediate result was a year-long civil war in 1848-49 that stands to this day as the only violent interethnic struggle that Vojvodina has ever experienced. Nonetheless, despite tensions occasioned by Budapest's regime of "Magyarization" under Dualism (1867-1918), Vojvodinans continued to coexist peacefully through the end of World War I. To this day, Vojvodinans know precious little about the seven decades between the revolutions of 1848 and the Great War precisely because it was so "uneventful" in terms of ethnic conflict; indeed, in the minds of modern historians of the nation-state, there is simply nothing particularly noteworthy about a society whose members live out their lives working the soil, raising families, and eventually dying of natural causes.

With Vojvodina's annexation by Serbia in 1918, it changed nation-states, but not the problems that multiethnic regions face within them. Since regaining its independence from the Ottoman empire, Serbia had pursued the same path traveled by western European nation-states like France. Nor was this necessarily inappropriate for Serbia, which was essentially monocultural at its creation, following the expulsion of its small Muslim population, and had remained so throughout its first century of territorial expansion. But Serbia's composition had changed considerably during the previous six years. Following its dramatic victories in the Balkan Wars (1912-13), it had acquired the Sand ak, Kosovo, and the northern two-thirds of Macedonia. All three regions contained Albanians, Turks and Muslim Slavs, as well as a Slavic majority in Macedonia whose distinctiveness was hidden behind their official characterization as "Southern Serbs". The diversity of Belgrade's expanding domain increased even more with the creation of the first Yugoslavia (1918-1941). Admittedly, Serb nationalists had long denied outstanding cultural differences, characterizing the Habsburg Croats (and, occasionally, the Slovenes) as "Catholic Serbs" and the Muslim Slavs of Bosnia-Hercegovina as "Muslim Serbs". Nevertheless, the history of Serbia and its central government since 1918 has been informed by every other ethnic group's determination to loosen its ties to Belgrade. Tito successfully mollified most non-Serbs by decentralizing Yugoslavia, but Milo?evi 's coup against the 1974 constitution brought almost instant dissolution. Today only Vojvodina and Sand ak remain as exceptions in what is once again an ethnically homogeneous Serb nation-state. Moreover, Vojvodina is the last remaining piece of the former Yugoslavia's multiethnic (and relatively wealthy) Habsburg legacy.

Given Vojvodina's ethnic Serb majority, any move toward secession is virtually unthinkable. On the other hand, the province is now treading the same path pursued during the 1980s by Slovenia and Croatia, both through its insistence on fiscal autonomy, and its underlying conviction that it constitutes a culturally distinct, "western-oriented" society, regardless of ethnicity. Its frustration is exacerbated by the fact that Vojvodinans currently represent thirty percent of the population of Rump Serbia (without Kosovo) and perhaps half of its GDP and tax receipts but are, nevertheless, woefully underrepresented in Belgrade's power structure.

Perhaps it is not my place to advocate one or another position in the present, political debate over autonomy. But it is my prerogative as a central European historian to observe from the record of similar movements that, once a particular group perceives itself as a distinct community, sustained attempts to deny its individuality and forcibly assimilate it never resolves the problem, but only leads to progressive – and permanent – alienation.


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Julie Mertus



         Serbia took a giant step toward becoming a lawful government when Vojislav Kostunica was elected president of Yugoslavia in September 2000 and Serb reformers swept to a landslide victory in parliamentary elections three months later. The defeat of Milosevic and the accession of more moderate leaders throughout Serbia has demonstrated that the Serbian people are indeed willing and able to choose their own democratic government. Yet Serbia has not completely disowned its outlaw behavior. As Bob Dole opined in the Washington Post: "Kostunica's election was a democratic triumph for the Serbian people. But it does not mean that Kostunica is a democrat or Serbia a democracy."1 On the contrary, Kostunica is a nationalist who has yet to demonstrate that he truly believes in participatory democracy and human rights. The danger, as Sonja Biserko, a long-time proponent of civil society in Serbia, warns us, is that "with Kostunica's victory the nationalist bloc has for the first time acquired democratic legitimacy and international support."2 This bloc has yet to abandon many of the beliefs and practices that continue to forestall its participation in the community of nations.

         A major donor conference will take place tomorrow that will consider the transfer of considerable sums of money to the new Belgrade government. On Wednesday, the Bush Administration announced that the United States would participate in the conference because the FRY government had begun legal steps to extradite Milosevic to The Hague. However, according to State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, the United States will not actually hand over the money unless Kostunica's government cooperates with the international tribunal. Today, the Yugoslav Constitutional Court temporarily suspended a decree allowing for Milosevic's extradition, which had recently been approved by the Yugoslav cabinet and filed by the Yugoslav justice minister. The court explained the suspension by claiming that the government also has obligations to domestic Yugoslav law. The United States and other potential donor countries should not prematurely pledge funds to Yugoslavia, but should demand that Belgrade first meet stringent benchmarks. In my brief remarks today, I will outline some of the most important steps for reform that donors should consider. The first step specifically concerns the status of Vojvodina.3 The remaining steps apply throughout Serbia.

·        Normalization of status of Vojvodina: Vojvodina was illegally stripped of its autonomous status which it had enjoyed under the 1974 Constitution. This status should be restored as soon as possible. There is no need for a commission to study restoration of autonomy and any such approaches should be viewed with suspicion as delay tactics. In restoring a degree of autonomy over such items as health, education, justice and finance, all efforts should be made to communicate to the people of Serbia that it is the territory of Vojvodina that has regained autonomy, not any particular ethnic group. As a multi-ethnic entity, Vojvodina should take steps to recognize and promote the human rights of all people, in accordance witb the other steps listed below.

  • Normalization of relations with neighbors: Serbia must take steps to normalize relations with all of its neighbors, including Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. his could involve:
    (i) the entering into dialogue or the resolution of territorial disputes;
    (ii) the establishment of diplomatic relations with its neighbors;
    (iii) clarification of support for the Dayton Agreement, the Kumanovo Agreement and any subsequent agreements on the status of neighbors;
    (iv) the initiation of joint programs for the nondiscriminatory return or resettlement of refugees and displaced persons; and
    (v) the introduction of freedom of movement in the region, including the abolishment of visa requirements.

    All of these measures would significantly improve the security situation in the region.

  • Reintegration with the international community: Natasa Kandic, a leading human rights advocate in Serbia, has aptly noted that the road to reintegration "leads through the United Nations and the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe."4 The process of reintegration will require FRY to abide by international standards and to cooperate with all bodies of the United Nations and OSCE, including the ad hoc international tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The handing over of Slobodan Milosevic to the tribunal will be a giant step in this direction.
  • Creation of a culture of lawfulness: A campaign to change the culture of lawlessness in Serbia must include the following elements:
    (i) an attack on organized crime, institutionalized corruption and cronyism;
    (ii) the reform of police and legal institutions and the institution of mechanisms for civilian oversight of the police;
    (iii) the withdrawal of support for extremist Serbs in Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro'
    (iv) the release of political prisoners, particularly Kosovar Albanians captured by Milosevic's forces;
    (v) the individualization of guilt for war crimes and human rights violations through cooperation with the ad hoc Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and other relevant international and domestic bodies;
    (vi) establishment of mechanisms for reconciliation, including the establishment of a legitimate truth commission and;
    (vii) the creation of education projects at all levels emphasizing the lawful ordering of society, international human rights and minority rights guarantees.
  • Support for human rights and minority rights: Concurrent with legal reform, the Serbian government must take concrete measures to demonstrate its support of human rights and minority rights. This entails more than respect for "negative rights," such as freedom from police harassment; freedom from discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, race or gender; and freedom of association and speech. It also involves affirmative rights and duties. Consistent with European standards, Serbia should offer education in minority languages; training of police and other legal officers so that they can respond appropriately to communal violence and discrimination; and the creation of a legal infrastructure that will support the development of an independent press, nongovernmental organizations and other initiatives of civil society. The implementation of both negative and affirmative rights will promote greater security for all citizens throughout Serbia.

·        (Re)building of the economy: Continuation of the dire economic situation in Serbia will undermine any gains made by the new, more moderate government. In addition, as long as the legal economy remains poor, substantial incentives will remain for involvement in the gray market and in organized crime. The international community can best support the transformation of Serbia to a lawful society through economic support for infrastructure development tied to strong regional development. This can be in the form of "graduated carrots," that is, incremental rewards for observance of human rights and other international standards of democratic states. (Note that restoration of Vojvodina's status should be one of the requirements for the commencement of carrots].

  • (Re)lbuilding of democratic institutions: Free and fair elections are just one component of democratization. Substantial attention needs to be devoted to:

(i) legal reform and consistent application of the rule of law;
(ii) training and professionalization of the police and army;
(iii) the development of independent journalism;
(iv) cultivation of openness at universities and within cultural institutions and;
(v) the expansion of all aspects of civil society.

All of the above challenges must be addressed within the context of regional development and European integration. Serbia should be encouraged to explore the potential for European integration to advance its need for economic development and security. At the same time, it should pursue regional initiatives to enhance security, development and observance of human and minority rights. Whatever solutions that are crafted by and for Serbia should be seen in light of its unique geographic position which places it in a strong and relatively secure region, and not necessarily as a blueprint for struggling outlaw governments in other parts of the world.


1,Bob Dole, "Beware Yugo-phoria," The Washington Post, 12 October 2000. [back]
2, Sonja Biserko, "Revival of Old Dreams," Bosnia Institute, [back]
3, My remarks do not address the status of Kosovo and Montenegro. I do, howeva, believe that sirrail steps should be taken to normalize the status of these entities. [back]
4, Natasa Kandic. "Our Priorities," Humanitarian Law Centre, Belgrade ( 16 October 2000), reprinted in Bosnia Report (Bosnia Institute) New Series No. 19/20 (Oct.-Dec. 2000).2 [back]

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