No, I am not optimistic. If cornered, the rat attacks. On Sunday evening it would seem that both Milošević and his opposition are preparing to proclaim themselves victorious and from then on anything is possible.
—József Makai in Magyar Hírlap,
Today, Milošević is a cornered, bleeding lion and therefore he does not and cannot recognise the opposition's triumph.
—Tamás Korhecz, advisor to the Vojvodinian Hungarian Federation (Vajdasági Magyarok Szövetsége, VMSZ), in Magyar Nemzet,
On 10 August, the party representing the Hungarians of the Vojvodina that proved most successful in the last elections, the VMSZ announced its intention to take part in the latest round on 24 September. Vice Chairman László Józsa declared that the party would support Koštunica in his bid to become President. In the federal elections, the VMSZ would put forward independent candidates for Szabadka and Nagybecskerek, the two constituencies where the Hungarian minority had a real chance of sending deputies to the lower chamber of the Federal House of Representatives.
At the last elections, the VMSZ had been able to secure 13 seats in the Vojvodinian provincial parliament and would put forward 20 candidates in September. There were 140 VMSZ seats in local government and the party would present 250 candidates, cherishing a fond hope of winning at least 200 seats. Party Chairman József Kasza (also Mayor of Szabadka) would stand for election to the upper chamber on the joint opposition list.
As far as the local government elections were concerned, the party would nominate independent candidates having consulted and hopefully reached agreement with the Vojvodinian Hungarian Democratic Community (VMDK) (Vajdasági Magyarok Demokratikus Közössége, led by Sándor Páll), the Vojvodinian Hungarian Civic Movement (Vajdasági Magyar Polgári Mozgalom, VMPM) and the other opposition parties, Serb and Vojvodinian alike. In siding unequivocally with the opposition, the VMSZ broke with its previous policy of co-operating with the Socialists in order to have a say in local and regional affairs.
Józsa repeated the vote of confidence in Koštunica at a press conference held the following day in Budapest, although he did acknowledge that, as a personality, he embodied various contradictions, being regarded as a nationalist as well as the best qualified man for the job. He had never made a single anti-Vojvodinian Hungarian statement in public and had shown a certain degree of interest in the proposals advanced by the VMSZ concerning autonomy for the Vojvodina.
Although he did not see eye to eye with the Federation on points of detail, his behaviour had been impeccable. Józsa also expressed his party's opinion about the desirability of the opposition presenting a single candidate for the Presidency. In the run-up to the elections, Józsa promised to meet the Hungarian press in Budapest every week, citing the fact that the Hungarians of the Vojvodina relied largely on the Hungarian media for information as his motive.
The VMDP (headed by András Ágoston) announced that it would put forward candidates for election to the lower chamber of the Federal Parliament in each of the six districts inhabited by members of the Hungarian minority, thereby showing greater ambition than the VMSZ (confined to the two mentioned above). Ágoston's party wanted to gain political legitimation for its aims of dual citizenship and Hungarian (or personal) autonomy.
Consensus reigned amongst the Hungarian parties as to the most suitable candidate for the Presidency, namely Koštunica, although the issue of separate candidates for the Hungarian parties proved to be a cause of division with Páll declaring on behalf of his party, the VMDK, that lack of unity amongst the Hungarians rendered it an exercise in futility and calling for his supporters to vote for candidates on the joint democratic opposition list. The recently re-established Vojvodinain Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement (Vajdasági Magyar Kereszténydemokrata Mozgalom, VMKM) preferred to concentrate its efforts on the local authority elections.
What is really at stake?
On 25 August, István Pásztor, VMSZ presidency member, set out his view of what the elections were about:
People will be voting at these elections not about whether they will get dual citizenship or autonomy but what is really at stake: whether it will be possible to topple Milošević from power.
Open hostility erupted between the firmly anchored VMSZ and the Vojvodinian Hungarian Community (Délvidéki Magyarok Közössége, DMK—interestingly enough, registered in Hungary) due to a letter in which the DMK would allegedly set up a Hungarian Republic within a federalised Yugoslavia. Labelling the plan as dangerous dreaming and downright insanity, the VMSZ railed against it in indignation whereas the DMK denied any link to the document the VMSZ had brought to public attention (the VMSZ's reaction may be explained in part to antipathy for a splinter group that parted company with it, the Europe Platform, which signed an agreement with the DMK).
At the beginning of September, DMK president Attila Andrási stressed the importance of every single vote in the forthcoming elections, urging all Vojvodinian Hungarians residing in Hungary to return home and make their presence felt at the polls. According to Andrási, it was vital for the local authorities to retain their Hungarian leadership where they were currently in power even if the Milošević regime were to remain in place.
In a joint interview published in Magyar Nemzet on 1 September, Koštunica and Mihajlović adopted a stance on the issue of Vojvodinian autonomy and their relations with the VMSZ. Koštunica stated that:
We have excellent relations with the Hungarian Vojvodinian Federation. I have to say that it is a particular source of delight to me that, according to the results of the latest opinion poll, 45% of the Hungarians of the Vojvodina would vote for me. My political creed is based on respect for democratic principles and national status, and I do not keep talking about the Serbs (as a group and thereby excluding national minorities).
I am convinced that we are all European to the extent that we feel a sense of belonging to national communities. I fully understand and respect that you are proud of Petőfi and Ady. As far as autonomy is concerned, on the other hand, I do not believe that it is possible to guarantee minority rights on a territorial basis. I believe that in multinational communities regionalism is the best solution, which is also proven by practice in Europe.
As for Mihajlović:
My party has a long-standing tradition of good relations with the Vojvodinian Hungarian organisations, though if I wanted to put it cynically, I would have to say that co-operation would be easier if there were only a single Hungarian party. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the fact of a multi-party system having developed amongst the Vojvodinian Hungarians signifies the existence of a higher level of democracy. With it, the Hungarians have demonstrated that they have matured into politicising and that they are capable of thinking beyond national lobbies.
In the course of the last decade, the Vojvodinian Hungarians have given evidence of an incredible tolerance. This may be shown first and foremost by the fact that it was the Hungarians the Serbs have had fewest incidents with and that the Hungarians have chosen to show solidarity with the democratic opposition. I believe that, if the opposition emerges victorious, we would be able to negotiate all questions in a relaxed atmosphere, including the calls for autonomy.
Likewise on 1 September, József Kasza made use of the meeting celebrating the city day to proclaim that:
Szabadka can be proud of its open policy and we live in dread of manifestations of intolerance, since we can see what consequences they entailed in Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo.
Kasza maintained that certain Serb leaders were engaged in an attempt at portraying the Vojvodina as a region anxious to break away from the country, though nothing could be further from the truth:
The Vojvodina wishes to remain within Yugoslavia and to belong to Europe once again along with the rest of the country.
Quizzed as to the low-key nature of his party's campaign, Kasza philosophically indicated that it would be prohibitively expensive to replace all the election posters that had been ripped down and that he was convinced in the efficacy of the party's message. Local Otpor activist Robertino Knyer placed Szabadka at the top of the arrests league table, although in his opinion, the intimidation had little or no effect. On the occasion of city day, Otpor had organised a rubbish collection with the aim of cleaning Szabadka both literally and metaphorically.
Changes in demography, democracy
The VMSZ revealed that it had reached agreement with the democratic opposition on presenting a united anti-Milošević front at the elections. It also published details of its plan for autonomy, including its position on the Vojvodinian Hungarians and its views on how the Vojvodinian Autonomous Province would function. Józsa explained that the Province would operate within Yugoslavia, but would possess separate judicial, executive and legislative bodies. He emphatically denied all rumours concerning the VMSZ's alleged collaboration with Milošević.
István Pásztor expressed muted optimism at the likely outcome of the elections, which would, in his view, bring about an opposition breakthrough, setting an irreversible process in motion, which would eventually cause the collapse of the regime. Introducing the Serb Democratic Opposition's programme, he drew attention to the reference to the need for decentralisation and the realisation of autonomy for the Vojvodina as part of a move towards greater regionalisation.
Józsa, who also attended the press conference, ascribed the weakness of the Milošević campaign to the incumbent's inability to respond to the welter of questions asked by the population at large, quoting indicators, which suggested that it would take Serbia's economy 40 years to climb back up to its 1987 level.
Mihály Vermes, Socialist candidate for the federal elections, launched an attack on the Hungarian government in an attempt to deter Vojvodinian Hungarians from voting for their fellow minority members. Vermes claimed that the Orbán administration's decision to authorise use of Hungarian airports in the course of NATO bombardments had been fatal to the minority's long-term interests.
In an interview in HVG (16 September), József Kasza predicted an opposition win, in spite of his fears of result-rigging on the part of Milošević loyalists. As he eloquently argued, the regime was rooted in the Communist past and had 50 or 60 years of practice in manipulation and falsifying results. That one and a half million signatures had been collected in favour of Milošević's candidacy was proof in itself of fraudulent dealings, as the signatures had been obtained under duress, with threats of dismissal or pay withdrawal for those who refused to play along.
Kasza did not discount even gloomier scenarios, such as a last-minute cancellation of the elections in the face of growing opposition popularity or the declaration of a state of emergency following orchestrated clashes. He had little faith in the prospect of a peaceful transition. Civil war may be the only means to ensure a proper changeover to democracy, and the Vojvodinian Hungarians were already the butt of provocations: Šešelj, leader of the extreme right Serb Radical Party, was constantly harping that the Muslims and Hungarians want to break away from Yugoslavia.
Šešelj had personally accused Kasza of striving towards secession of the seven Northern districts with a majority Hungarian population, though, as Kasza astutely added, Šešelj was resolutely silent as to why Kasza did not want to go the whole hog and take the other half of the Hungarian population along with him. In Kasza's opinion, the slander was a deliberate ploy to keep the minorities question on the agenda in order to provoke a conflict at any juncture deemed convenient.
As to the VMSZ's support of Koštunica, Kasza reiterated his previous arguments: that Milošević had to be deposed from a position into which he had cemented himself, people had to see evidence that change was possible. Koštunica had shown willing to carry out this thankless task. As for his nationalism, Kasza praised his honesty in admitting he was at least as nationalistic as the representatives of any other ethnic group:
I don't want him to be Hungarian and he doesn't want me to be Serb. But I do expect him to show respect for difference, for the peoples living alongside him and in this sense we have positive experience of him. He was the sole opposition politician, who engaged in serious negotiations about the problems of the Vojvodinian Hungarians and about our autonomy plans. Regardless of the fact that he did not agree with us on everything, he at least got as far as negotiating. The others just fobbed us off with empty promises, stressing that they would negotiate once we had overthrown Milošević's regime.
The autonomy plans had met with a lukewarm reception on all sides, but progress had been made in so far as there was now a general realisation of the chaos, which reigned in respect of the situation of minorities.
Demographic change in the Vojvodina was due to a mass exodus, with estimates that 30,000 of the 400,000 Hungarians had deserted the Vojvodina. Kasza pointed out that Vojvodinian Hungarians were still leaving in droves, and that not all of them were content to cross the frontier into Hungary, but sought a better life further afield. Unemployment was considerably higher amongst the Hungarians than the dominant population. In certain areas of the Vojvodina, 60 to 80% of the active population was out of work. This was exacerbated by those on involuntary leave, who were not receiving wages in spite of nominally holding down a job.
During a visit to Szabadka on 16 September, Koštunica confidently asserted that there would be room in a new Yugoslav government for Hungarians and representatives of other national minorities as well before going on to repeat his earlier statements about regionalisation versus autonomy.
On 21 September, in his final pre-election press conference aimed at assessing the preparations made, Kasza again broached the possibility of a civil war breaking out. Were this to occur all minorities, including the Vojvodinian Hungarians, would be in a very precarious position indeed. He hoped that the West could be relied upon to take the necessary steps should the need arise, although he was more than aware that assistance from the West had a habit of arriving late in the day. At the same time he was confident, however, that the Vojvodinian Hungarians would turn out in force at the polling stations to defend their interests.
The results and the response
In the event, the turnout amongst Hungarians of the Vojvodina far exceeded the levels of four years previously, in many areas topping the 80% level. Koštunica's victory in the Hungarian districts was impressive. In Szabadka, for example, he gained five times as many votes as Milošević.
In the local authority elections, the strategy of aligning itself with the opposition paid off handsomely for the VMSZ, where, according to unofficial results, eight local authorities would be entirely or predominantly in Hungarian hands. The VMSZ again proved the most popular Hungarian party and Kasza won back his seat in the Federal Parliament. In Szabadka, the nine-party coalition headed by the VMSZ won 58 of the 67 seats in the city council, 33 of which went to the VMSZ itself. Similar successes were scored in Zenta and Ada. Meanwhile, the VMKM was left to mop up the crumbs from the table.
Kasza, in an interview in Magyar Hírlap (26 September), expressed his delight with the outcome, as the fate of the local authorities with a Hungarian majority had been the real issue for his party. The party's success had not been confined to the traditional areas of strength, but had spread to wherever it had put forward candidates. Of the other Hungarian parties, only the VMDP had achieved a good result and that was restricted to Temerin. Kasza attributed the failure of his Hungarian rivals to widespread unity within the Hungarian population of the Voivodina. Even after the battle seemed to have been won, Kasza still did not discount the possibility of police and military intervention to help Milošević stay in power.
What could the Vojvodinian Hungarians look ahead to from a new government, which, in the eyes of many, was every bit as nationalistic as the Milošević regime? Kasza once again refused to rise to the bait concerning Koštunica's nationalistic sentiments, countering with the rhetorical question as to why he should not be a nationalist? If Kasza was entitled to be one of he wanted, then why not Koštunica, who represented the interests of the Serbs after all? Koštunica would not have faked co-operation with the VMSZ as it was not in his interests to associate himself with them. On the occasion of his most recent visit, he had agreed with Kasza to seek the most acceptable solution to the minority issue.
As might be expected, the Foreign Minister and the President of Hungary welcomed the election results. János Martonyi attached a great deal of importance to the outcome, which represented the will of the majority in favour of democracy and reintegration into Europe. Stability and security for the entire continent had come a step closer and the consequences for Hungarian-Yugoslav relations were encouraging. Martonyi also voiced satisfaction that the Vojvodinian Hungarians had done so well.
In a similar vein, President Mádl declared that the elections represented a historical step on the path towards democracy, which the other countries in the region had already followed. He sincerely looked forward to meeting Koštunica as head of state as soon as possible in order to see how best to restore and extend relations between the two countries.
Gábor Horváth, Foreign Ministry spokesman, replied in response to a query as to whether Hungary would be able to cope with a sudden influx of refugees from Yugoslavia should the worst come to the worst that both Hungary and the international community in general were prepared for any eventuality. The country's primary task was to continue to give every possible support to the democratic opposition and to Koštunica.
It will be for the sake not only of all the minorities in the region but of Yugoslavia as a whole, if in the next couple of weeks Milošević will see sense and bow out gracefully rather than unleashing a further tragedy in the Balkans.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 2 October 2000
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Magyar Nemzet, 11, 12, 14, 26, 28 August and 1, 2, 4, 8, 11, 15, 18, 21, 22 and 26 September;
Magyar Hírlap, 23, 26 and 29 September;
HVG, 16 September and
Népszabadsag, 28 September.