- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

NOVI SAD, Yugoslavia — Driving north out of Belgrade toward the Croatian and Hungarian borders, you notice the changes almost immediately.
The crumbling concrete typical of modern Balkan architecture quickly gives way to delicate pinks and yellows of Austrian minipalaces. In the towns, the streets are cleaner and traffic less chaotic. Tall corn grows in the flat, wide fields.
This is Vojvodina, and people here say the difference from the rest of Serbia isn't just cosmetic. It's evidence that this province is something special — calmer, harder working, richer and more cultured. Now Vojvodinans are trying to break free from Belgrade's rule.
What makes this breakaway movement different from the others Yugoslavia has seen in the past 10 years is the same thing that makes Vojvodina different: It's peaceful, measured and multiethnic. Vojvodina is home to more than a dozen ethnic groups, including Serbs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Croats, Ukrainians, Romanians and Germans, and all support autonomy for their province.

Autonomy or separatism?
"Our ethnic groups are Vojvodina's wealth," said Emil Fejzulahi, vice president of the ethnically mixed and strongly pro-autonomy League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina.
But to politicians in Belgrade already struggling to keep Kosovo and Montenegro inside Yugoslavia, talk of autonomy sounds suspiciously like what they heard from Kosovo Albanians in the early 1990s, which ended in the de facto loss of Kosovo. Right-of-center parties, in particular, warn that this is just the beginning of another separatist movement.
"People in Belgrade don't understand what autonomy is about," said Anna Szerencses, a cultural writer for the Novi Sad-based Hungarian-language newspaper Magyar Szo. "They think autonomy and separation is the same thing, because they've never had this experience of a multinational territory that works well.
"It's very important to stress that Vojvodina is not based on an ethnic principle. People are very diligent here — farmers are dedicated to their fields, and we all have more or less the same customs."

A more European past
Unlike the rest of Serbia, Vojvodina largely escaped the harsh rule of the Turkish Ottoman empire. Instead, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and its rich soil attracted subjects from all over Austria and Hungary. As part of Yugoslavia, it saw economic refugees from the poorest parts of the country and more recently took in about 300,000 refugees from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.
Vojvodinans are proud of how their province manages to assimilate all these newcomers.
"I was born in Novi Sad, and I was worried that [the refugees of the 1990s] would change the face of Vojvodina," said Mr. Fejzulahi of the League of Social Democrats.
"But it didn't happen. In '93 and '94, you could hear people with Bosnian accents, but not anymore — they've adapted."

Refugees melt in
One refugee is Dragan Vukic, 28, a Serb from Croatia who fled the war there 10 years ago. Now he's married and planning to start a family in Novi Sad, the pleasant, orderly capital of Vojvodina.
Even though he feels "Croats will always hate Serbs," Mr. Vukic doesn't have problems with Croats in Vojvodina. "Vojvodina is a different place. Vojvodina is peace and quiet. I lived in Belgrade for four years, but I wasn't happy there. I'm happy here."
Supporters of autonomy argue that with more local control, Vojvodina's various ethnic groups will be able to manage more of their affairs and expand native language schools and media. But the real issue, of course, is money.
Vojvodina accounts for about 50 percent of present Yugoslavia's economy, but the central government only gives back about 30 percent. "We're paying nearly double for this state," Mr. Fejzulahi said.

A regional tax revolt
"The government in Belgrade just takes money," Mr. Vukic said. "Everyone in Serbia is living off food made in Vojvodina." Despite the multicultural rhetoric, it is economic issues that drive the autonomy campaign, said Dusan Dobromirov, head of the Novi Sad office of the influential think tank G-17 Plus.
"They say we have a special culture and a special mentality, and that's true," Mr. Dobromirov said. "But without the economic problem, this kind of thinking wouldn't have such big support."
Only 5 percent of Vojvodinans support complete independence for the province. Many more — about 70 percent, according to opinion polls — want to go back to the way it was before the elevation of former President Slobodan Milosevic, when the province controlled its internal affairs and kept its own tax revenues.
In 1992, Mr. Milosevic rescinded the autonomous status of Kosovo and Vojvodina. But while Kosovo Albanians escalated their violence — the Serbian backlash to which had brought Mr. Milosevic to power — Vojvodinans relied on political struggle. When a broad coalition formed last year to oppose Mr. Milosevic in presidential elections, three major Vojvodina parties signed on because the coalition promised to swiftly reinstate Vojvodina's special status.

Impatience is growing

But 10 months after the coalition defeated Mr. Milosevic, nothing has been done. So the three Vojvodina parties have banded together to press Belgrade on the issue. In recent days they have mounted an aggressive press campaign, and threaten that if Vojvodina's status isn't dealt with soon, they will call on international groups to intervene.
"After wasting time, the issue will become needlessly severe, and the price will be much higher than if we had done it on time," Miodrag Isakov, president of the Reform Democratic Party of Vojvodina, told Belgrade radio station B-92. "Ten months have passed, and Vojvodina autonomy has not even been mentioned."
But members of the ruling coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) are split on the issue. No one in the government is making official statements, but liberals, led by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, are mostly for autonomy while the right-leaning members, led by Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, are against it.

Specific ideas sought
Last week , DOS agreed to look at autonomy, but nothing specific was decided. At a meeting Tuesday night in Novi Sad, coalition members agreed to begin drafting a new Serbian constitution to redefine the status of Vojvodina based on the principles of decentralization and regionalization.
But at the same time, the Serbian government was asked to come up with concrete proposals by early September for delegating certain powers to the Vojvodina parliament and its executive body in line with the existing Serbian Constitution. After receiving the proposals from Belgrade, the DOS presidency is to study them for two weeks before deciding whether they are sufficient.
"We don't support [a return to the old autonomy] — it would create a state within a state, a communist type of autonomy," said Aleksandar Popovic, chairman of the council of Mr. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia. "The point is, they would like to replace Belgrade with Novi Sad."

Independence 'too costly'
Countered Mr. Fejzulahi: "Our political enemies are saying 'Today they want autonomy, tomorrow it will be independence,'"
But with independence, Vojvodina would have to deal with defense, border security and other costly issues. "All that is too expensive. It's much cheaper to stay in Serbia," he said.
Mr. Fejzulahi said that of all the foreign investors who have expressed interest in Yugoslavia since Mr. Milosevic left, 90 percent were interested in Vojvodina in particular. Its geographic position, hard-working people and stability are attractive, "but not if they have to pay twice as much taxes as they should" to support less efficient parts of Serbia, he said.
Autonomy would also stem the flow of young people out of Vojvodina, supporters hope. About 50,000 Hungarians have left in the last 10 years, a large portion of them young men unwilling to be drafted and tempted by much better economic prospects in Budapest.


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