Vojvodina may well be the most ethnically mixed of all of the regions of the former Yugoslavia. The last federal census of the former Yugoslavia, conducted in 1991, listed almost 30 separate nationalities living in the province.
The largest group, the Serbs, makes up little more than half of the population. The census also showed an inter-ethnic marriage rate of almost 16 per cent, attesting to the high degree of peaceful coexistence Vojvodina has been able to maintain even throughout the wars which erupted all around it, especially in Eastern Slavonia, right next door in Croatia.
Politics in Vojvodina follow two basic threads. The first is working towards greater legislative protection of the many national minorities. The previous, Milošević, regime was uninterested in working towards attaining European standards of protection for national minorities throughout Yugoslavia, but no serious human rights violations have been reported in Vojvodina.
However, with the change in leadership and change in priorities that it has brought about, the minority groups and their political parties are pushing for a firmer legal basis for their communities.
The second thread is working towards some degree of autonomy. Milošević's centralizing policies conflicted with the high degree of autonomy that Vojvodina (and Kosovo-Metohija) had enjoyed since 1974, and so he abolished it in 1989.
Since then, Vojvodina has been administered centrally from Belgrade. Politicians and citizens have demanded autonomy be reinstated for more than a decade, and again, with the recent change in power, autonomy for the province may well be on the horizon.
A short history of Vojvodina
The history of Vojvodina is blurry. For a long time, there has been an academic controversy over whether the Serbs or the Hungarians were the land's original inhabitants. In 1918, the region became part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later Yugoslavia, but until then it had been part of the Hapsburgs' Austrian Empire.
Proud of their Hapsburg, Central European culture, the residents of Vojvodina distance themselves from the rest of Serbia, feeling closer cultural affinity to Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and other former Hapsburg areas. One ethnologist found the Vojvodinian ideal to be fini ljudi, in other words, cultured and civilized. Vojvodinians put their fini ljudi concept in diametric opposition to their prejudice of the uncivilized "Balkan" types to the south.
Vojvodina became an autonomous province of Serbia under the terms of the 1974 constitution, together with Kosovo and Metohija. De jure, it was still part of the republic of Serbia, but de facto, it functioned as a full-fledged republic. Five nationalities were accorded the status of "titular nationality:" Serbs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Rusyns.
The rise of Slobodan Milošević in the late 1980s brought an end to the arrangement. Milošević supporters rallied throughout Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, and at one such rally, demonstrators lobbed yogurt at the provincial assembly building in Novi Sad. When the provincial government stepped down soon after to allow Milošević to administer the province centrally from Belgrade, it was dubbed the "Yogurt Revolution."
The great degree of ethnic diversity in Vojvodina is the direct result of the policies of the Austrian emperors who ruled over the region prior to 1918. In the 18th century, the districts that today make up Vojvodina were part of the empire's southern border, and were ravaged by the Ottoman Turks.
Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II, whose rules stretched from 1740 to 1790, promoted colonization to repopulate and revitalize the region once the Turkish threat died down. Germans came from the most densely populated areas of the empire, joined by waves of Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Rusyns, Vlachs and Ukrainians.
The Serbs regained their demographic dominance in the region after the Great Exodus (Velika Seoba Srba) of 1690, when Patriarch Arsinije led 30,000 Serbian families to Vojvodina from the Turk-dominated regions that now make up Kosovo and Metohija.
As of the 1991 census, the total population of Vojvodina was a little over two million. Serbs made up only 57.2 percent. The next largest group was the Hungarians, 16.9 percent of the population. Other groups included Croats (3.7 percent), Slovaks (3.2), Montenegrins (2.2) and Romanians (1.9). More than 14 percent of the population is made up of more than 20 other groups, including Roma, Rusyns and Germans. Since the start of the wars throughout the former Yugoslavia, Vojvodina has also absorbed more than 300,000 refugees from all parts of the former country.
The city of Subotica, in the north of the province, hosted a two-day conference this week on the place and perspectives of national minorities in Vojvodina. The conference was organized by the Federal Union of European Nationalities and the Democratic Union of Croats of Vojvodina.
Groups representing the Croats, Slovaks, Rusyns, Romanians, Roma, Germans and Ukrainians all took part, however, the Hungarian representatives at the last minute decided not to participate. Representatives of the federal and provincial governments also participated, including a representative from the federal Ministry of National Minorities and the vice-president of the Vojvodinian Assembly.
While there has been no significant level of human rights abuses documented in Vojvodina throughout the decade, the position of national minorities remains largely unregulated. The participants at the Subotica conference reiterated the need for federal and republican constitutional laws to regulate the position of the national minorities, both as individuals and groups.
Autonomy on the agenda
The Vojvodinian capital of Novi Sad received a new municipal government with October's elections and, earlier this month, Boris Novaković of the Democratic Party became the president of the Municipal Assembly (de facto, the town's mayor).
The new mayor is aware of the fact that the federal and republican governments are unable to give Novi Sad much assistance, and so he has set out in search of international partners for his city. In the past few weeks, a delegation visited from Barcelona to discuss aid and cultural cooperation, and an agreement was signed with Zagreb to promote economic cooperation between the two cities.
At the end of last week, Novakovic led a delegation to Slovenia. The group met with representatives of the city of Kranj and Slovene capital Ljubljana, as well as with other government, economic and business leaders. Novaković was pleased at the high level of interest the Slovenes showed in investing in Novi Sad.
The Slovene company Planik will open a store in Novi Sad in the next few weeks, and the director of Slovenia's largest company, Mercator, expressed interest in opening a Mercator shopping center also in Novi Sad.
Next week, Novaković will lead a delegation to the Italian towns of Modena, Ferara and Bolognia to discuss economic cooperation, and next month a delegation from Dortmond will visit Novi Sad to discuss possibilities for cooperation and the granting of aid for city infrastructure. The Austrian city of Klagenfurt has also invited Novaković to visit.
A new provincial government was installed after the October elections as well. Đorde Đukić of the Democratic Party (DS) became the province's premier. Nenad Čanak of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV) became the president of the Vojvodinian Assembly.
The new provincial government would like to follow Novi Sad's lead and seek out regional and international cooperation, both in order to get assistance from Belgrade and as a means to get away from Belgrade's centralist policies, and to work toward the realization of autonomy for the province.
One big step in that direction was announced this week, when Nenad Čanak told the Yugoslav press agency Beta that Vojvodina should have independent diplomatic representation in those countries where it has interests. He also said that he had spoken with federal Foreign Minister Goran Svilanović about those in the Yugoslav diplomatic corps who are from Vojvodina and how they could be used to promote the province.
During the Balkan summit, beginning on 24 November in Zagreb, Nenad Čanak will propose a similar plan to the summit participants. The idea, he maintains, will promote regional cooperation. But it will also give Vojvodina a special status outside the reach of Belgrade.
Čanak was sure to tell Beta his recent statements should not be interpreted as another push for provincial autonomy, but he has long been a vocal proponent of a return to the pre-1989 autonomy for Vojvodina.
His LSV forwarded a plan this March to establish a federation of Serbia, in which Vojvodina would be a republic along with Šumadija, Southeastern Serbia, Belgrade, Sandžak and Kosovo-Metohija. It was the latest in a string of plans to regain autonomy and, like the others, little came of it.
Vojvodina was particularly hard hit during last year's NATO bombing, and has suffered along with the rest of Yugoslavia under sanctions and international demonization. Even though minority rights have not been infringed upon to any great degree, the national groups want to be sure that their rights continue to be respected. One way this could be done is by returning autonomy to the province.
So far, there is no indication that the new federal Yugoslav regime will be more receptive to the plan than the previous regime, but as provincial leaders continue to push the issue, the federal government will soon have to take a stance.
Brian J Požun, 27 November 2000
Elsewhere in CER:
- Caught in the Middle: Carpatho-Rusyns and Vojvodina, Brian J Požun
- Erosion or Survival, Gusztáv Kosztolányi
- Archive of articles on Yugoslavia in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
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Mattijs van de Port, Gypsies, Wars and Other Instances of the Wild: Civilization and its Discontents in a Serbian Town. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1988.
Jan Briza, Minority Rights in Yugoslavia. Minority Rights International, London, 2000.
City of Novi Sad
Rusyns in Vojvodina