AIM: start

WED, 12 DEC 2001 00:01:33 GMT

Vojvodina Seeks Autonomy

Referendum on Property

This time around Vojvodina's demand for accurate regulation of its identity and finances, and legal protection of its autonomy, seems unlikely to be simply dismissed as separatism or easily swept under the carpet.

AIM Belgrade, November 29, 2001

Negotiations between authorities of Vojvodina province and its superior, the cabinet of Serbia, are in practice a lesson on how to continue obstructing Vojvodina's individuality, primarily in an economic sense. This is how Vojvodina Assembly Speaker Nenad Canak expressed his disbelief with what the Serbian cabinet had promised: that certain powers would be given back to the province. "The first result of this restoration of autonomy will come after Vojvodina's property is sold. Because the government in Belgrade does not want Vojvodina to have any powers as long as it has any property and firm ground under its feet..." Somewhat earlier Canak said the following of Serbian cabinet plans to restore some of Vojvodina's powers: "It seems that the Serbian cabinet has the will, but the Serbian Legislature does not have the desire, and we will have nothing, and will be unable to provide better living conditions for Vojvodina residents."

Meanwhile, after a recent meeting of 14 leaders of Vojvodina parties, most leaning to the left of center, and non-government organizations in Subotica, officials announced that a constitution for Vojvodina was being considered as well as a referendum; the plebiscite was supposed to address not political but property issues. Jozef Kasa, the president of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians and a Serbian deputy premier, however, believes it is too early to speak of a referendum.

Surveys say that Vojvodina believes its turn has finally come: over one-half (52.5 percent) of Vojvodinians, according to a poll taken by Scan, a well-known pollster, believe it is about time to "finally bring up" the issue of Vojvodina's authority. Last October, Scan, which has accurately determined the state of affairs and tendencies for years, registered the biggest number of pro-autonomy Vojvodinians in the past 10 years. According to October results, 76 percent of people over 18 want a higher degree of autonomy for the province. Last March the percentage was about 60 percent. The survey was carried out after a scandal when the Serbian state TV network's managing board, sidestepping the provincial assembly, appointed managers at TV Novi Sad.

A November poll conducted by NS Media showed that 84 percent of Vojvodinians believe Vojvodina needs its own government bodies, "lack of autonomy" being the biggest problem in the province according to the majority. Poverty was ranked second. Vojvodinians perceive their poverty as a consequence of a general trend towards centralization, carried out by Slobodan Milosevic, which the new authorities are very reluctant to relinquish. According to Scan, 70 percent of respondents believe Vojvodina is being plundered by being prevented from financing itself by taxing its residents and collecting other forms of public revenue; almost every fifth respondent (18.5 percent) is convinced that all such income should be distributed by Vojvodina. The number of people with such views is on the rise -- in March only 15.8 percent thought so. Almost 77.8 percent want Vojvodina in charge of one-half or more of its own income (in March it was 75.6 percent).

Pro-autonomy politicians have obviously set the trend and will not give up. Politically united around a platform ("an autonomous Vojvodina in a new, democratic Serbia and Yugoslavia") which was in August signed by the 14 parties and non-government organizations mentioned above, have continued to insist on their agenda. The first of many "pressing" issues in the platform is taking steps to urge Vojvodina residents to democratically choose a new constitutional position for Vojvodina ("as part of the Republic of Serbia"), while "preserving Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity." Officials intimated that a referendum could be the only way to test the mood of the population. The reasons are many. One of them is privatization and the fact that foreign buyers have been offered property in Vojvodina, while the proceeds are expected to end up in the central treasury, with only 5 percent going to the province. Two set of managers at TV Novi Sad -- one appointed by the provincial assembly and the other by managers of Serbia's state TV network -- has also brought up a number of issues. One of them is who has the right to interfere with, or possibly override, a decision reached by a legislative body.

Meanwhile, a vote of no confidence in Vojvodina Assembly Speaker Nenad Canak, despite surprising pressure from Serbia's top officials, failed to pass. In a fashion reminiscent of the Milosevic era, Serbian state TV carried official demands for his dismissal: Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic personally supported the motion, and his Democrats in the Vojvodina Assembly ran the risk of "sneezing because someone in Belgrade had a cold," consequently losing their carefully nurtured image of Belgrade party that cares about the interests of an autonomous Vojvodina. People here in Vojvodina are not mentioning what Premier Djindjic said last year -- "I am a greater autonomy supporter than Canak" -- not even as a joke.

The fact that the central government rushed to demonstrate that it is trying to find a way to finance efforts to restore some of Vojvodina's powers, did nothing to reduce scepticism. Since Serbian Finance Minister Bozidar Djelic and Vojvodina representatives failed to reach a concrete agreement on financing and transferring a host of powers from the republic to the provincial level, a working group has been formed and should settle all issues within 10 days. Djelic is aware that nothing will probably come of his plans for passage of a special bill clearly separating the powers of the provincial government and its sources of funding before a final version of the 2002 budget: "I think that the plan can be realized, but the speed at which our Legislature operates should also be taken into account." Furthermore, the finance minister admitted that "we do not have concrete figures tonight, or what it means in terms of income and expenses, but we have determined how this can be done and a working group will over the next 10 days seek a concrete mechanism for financing Vojvodina's new government. Therefore, in 10 days we will not only have the papers, but also some figures and a certain mechanism."

This explanation reveals the pattern of negotiations between the republic and provincial administrations: nobody knows what has exactly been postponed for 10 days, or maybe two weeks, how many times it has yet to be postponed and how many times the Vojvodina Assembly has to confirm its own decision, much like the one involving the TV Novi Sad management, only to see everything ultimately rejected... Canak warned that Serbian cabinet news releases are one thing and money pouring out of Vojvodina and essential autonomy something entirely different, as well as "the cabinet's charity package," the latter having yet to be resolved in the Serbian Legislature. He summed it up as a "new bounced check," issued only to "delude" the province's citizens.

"I will do everything in my power to see that a referendum is organized, in which all 2.5 million citizens of Vojvodina will be able to say to whom our property belongs, but we will submit no proposal to the Legislature without consulting our partners," Canak said. He warned that opponents of autonomy from Belgrade would use all means available to attack its champions, much like the former regime. Maybe Canak or someone else will have to continue to respond to unimaginative accusations by saying that he is not in favor of Vojvodina's secession but only of the right of the people to decide what happens their own property.

This time around Vojvodina's demand for accurate regulation of its identity and finances, and legal protection of its autonomy, seems unlikely to be simply dismissed as separatism or easily swept under the carpet. Since the 1988 so-called anti-bureaucratic revolution this was the favorite mental discipline of the authorities and a part of the opposition, which is currently in power. According to Dejan Mikavica, chairman of the Democratic Party of Serbia's Novi Sad chapter, "The autonomy advocated by Vojvodina pro-autonomy parties endangers the interests of the Serb people and annuls the position of Serbs as a constituent nation in the province." He insists that "the Democratic Party of Serbia will always be against any form of independence for the province that includes elements of statehood," and adds that others issues promoted by these parties "have nothing in common with the interests of Vojvodianians in Serbia."

No longer will officials in Belgrade be able to simply dismiss these demands. Diverse as it is, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) is still having difficulty separating its attitude towards pragmatic democracy from centralism, regardless of all its current rhetoric. This school of thought often argues as if on stage: DOS Serbian Legislature whip Cedomir Jovanovic for instance said that Vojvodina Assembly Speaker Canak "has unnecessarily radicalized the situation in Vojvodina in order to reap the profits as a media star." It is interesting to note Jovanovic's explanation: "Within the boundaries of the current Constitution, we will, to the greatest extent possible," meet the demands of the Vojvodina Assembly and Executive Council, but will certainly not take the direction desired by Canak."

According to a November poll take by NS Media in Novi Sad, if they chose to run together in elections, the Vojvodina parties would obtain as much as 41.2 percent of the vote; DOS 7.7 percent, and Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia 13.9 percent (meaning a significant drop in popularity). Scan's October survey produced similar results: the Vojvodina parties would get the vote of every fourth adult (25.4 percent), DOS 15.6 percent, and the Democratic Party of Serbia 13.2 percent.

Milena Putnik