By Jan Briza in Novi Sad (BCR No 411, 4-Mar-03)
Ethnic Hungarian leaders in a province of northern Serbia have dismissed claims that their plan to forge closer ties between nine local councils marks the first step towards secession.
Local Serbian parties in the province of Vojvodina describe the initiative of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, AVH, as separatist-inspired. They say it is an attempt to split the province into Hungarian and Serbian zones.
"We want to live here and we're not looking for another country," said Lajos Bala, mayor of Kanjiza, one of the municipalities forming the association, speaking on February 27.
Jozsef Kasza, president of the AVH and one of the prime movers behind the association, said, "We have not contemplated secession for one moment."
The protocol they have drawn up includes several municipal councils with an ethnic Hungarian majority and some predominated by Serbs, such as Novi Knezevac.
Bala assured the Serbian media on February 27 that their only motive was concern for the "practical matters and the common interests" of the municipalities concerned.
Such soothing explanations have not calmed fears among the province's Serb-dominated parties, some of which have raised fears of a Kosovo-style conflict erupting in this peaceful agricultural province.
They have accused the Hungarians of endangering social peace in ethnically heterogeneous Vojvodina, where minorities make up more than one-third of the two million population.
Nenad Canak, speaker of the Vojvodina assembly, warned publicly that the province risked emulating Kosovo's bloody fate if it was allowed to split on ethnic lines.
Canak said that if Kosovo was divided on ethnic lines between Serbs and Albanians, which he described as "the prevailing idea emanating from the Serbian government", then it was "only logical to expect Vojvodina to be divided into northern [Hungarian] Vojvodina and the rest".
His comments, delivered to a session of his League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, LSV, on February 20, suggested he held the Serbian government of Zoran Djindjic chiefly responsible for the conflict.
Under the 1974 Yugoslavia constitution drawn up by the country's longtime communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, Kosovo and Vojvodina were granted an equally high degree of autonomy. In the late Eighties, the then Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, scrapped the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina altogether.
Since Milosevic's ouster, Vojvodina's new leadership - and especially Canak - have lobbied for the return of Vojvodina's former broad self-government and for the province to enjoy a greater portion of the revenue it generates. Belgrade has opposed these demands, largely for economic reasons.
For all Canak's dire predictions, the situation in Vojvodina cannot be compared to that of Kosovo. While Albanians account for 95 per cent of Kosovo's population, Hungarians make up only 15 per cent of Vojvodina's people.
All Kosovo Albanian political parties, without exception, demand an independent state, while none of the five parties representing Vojvodina Hungarians advocates secession from Serbia.
And while there is virtually no communication between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, Vojvodnia is a multicultural society with few signs of ethnic tension.
Serbia's new authorities and the Vojvodina Hungarian parties cooperated closely to bring about the overthrow of the dictatorial Milosevic regime on October 5, 2000.
Kasza and his Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, now part of Djindic's governing DOS coalition, played a major role in these events and Kasza was subsequently rewarded with the post of first deputy prime minister in the Serbian government.
Most political observers attribute Canak's outburst to an attempt to put his campaign for Vojvodina's greater autonomy under the spotlight.
Two days after making his statement about the dangers of a Kosovo-style division, Canak explained the rationale behind his words to the local Gradanski List newspaper.
Canak said he feared Vojvodina would lose the battle for greater autonomy if Belgrade struck a separate deal with the Hungarian community.
He remarked that the case for full autonomy would be gravely weakened if the political aspirations of Hungarians in Vojvodina were fulfilled in isolation from the rest of the community.
"If I wanted to obstruct Vojvodina's [path to] autonomy from Belgrade, this is exactly how I would go about it," Canak said.
Belgrade had long hankered to reduce Vojvodina's autonomy entirely, Canak went on, adding that the idea had gained momentum now the whole future shape of Serbia was being discussed within the framework of a new state union between Serbia and Montenegro.
In the meantime, Canak has pressed ahead with a drive to push a draft of a new constitution for Vojvodina through the provincial assembly.
A team of experts under his sponsorship prepared the draft, headed by Aleksandar Fira, a well-known constitutional law expert. The document would grant the province wide-ranging legislative and judicial autonomy.
A different draft for a new system of government for Vojvodina has been endorsed by Djindjic's Democratic Party, which grants the province significantly fewer powers than Canak's document.
With 17 seats of the 120 seats in the local assembly, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians could play a crucial role in deciding which of the two documents will be adopted.
Canak's condemnation of the protocol on cooperation between the nine municipalities encouraged the mainline Serbian nationalist parties to follow suit.
They included Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, and Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS. Neither of these parties is at all friendly to Canak's campaign for provincial autonomy.
Canak has since signalled that he realises his argument may have backfired, and has unintentionally aided parties that espouse centralising programmes very different from his own.
After holding a meeting with Kasza in Novi Sad, Canak played down the significance of his remarks about the risks of "Kosovo-isation".
However, the damage may have been done. The only likely result of this political furore is a heightening of ethnic tensions in Vojvodina, which until now has been a relative haven of ethnic tolerance in former Yugoslavia.
Jan Briza is an editor on the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik.