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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Vojvodina: Belgrade's new headache
Pro-autonomy demonstrator, 1999
Autonomy has supporters on the streets, and in parliament
By south-east Europe analyst, Gabriel Partos

Yugoslavia's problems with restless provinces show no sign of abating, with the northern region of Vojvodina now joining Kosovo and Montenegro on Belgrade's list of urgent headaches.

Map of Yugoslavia
Kosovo, now under United Nations administration, is heading for elections in mid-November that are expected to vote into office a government dominated by ethnic Albanians who are determined to go for independence.

Montenegro - Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation - has already become a de facto indepedent entity. And unless it can reach a deal with Serbia on reshaping the Yugoslav federation, it may vote for full independence in a referendum early next year.

In Vojvodina it's a drive for autonomy that threatens to cause tensions.

By comparison, this may seem a relatively minor problem - after all both Vojvodina and Kosovo enjoyed autonomy up until 1989, when Mr Milosevic imposed direct control from Belgrade - but it will not easily be swept under the carpet.

TV dispute

Matters appeared to have come to a head last week when the provincial assembly sacked one of Vojvodina's deputy prime ministers, Rade Marinkov, who belongs to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia.

The Novi Sad television station was bombed in 1999
Bombed in 1999: The Novi Sad television station
Mr Kostunica and his nationalist supporters are reluctant to go along with autonomy or federalisation which they see as a potential first step leading towards the break-up of Serbia.

Alongside Mr Marinkov's dismissal, the provincial parliament also voted to upgrade Novi Sad's status to make it Vojvodina's capital rather than its previous lower status as the seat of the provincial administration.

The political momentum was further accelerated when Nenad Canak, speaker of the Vojvodina assembly, stormed into the main building of Novi Sad's public service TV and radio to protest against Belgrade's decision to appoint a new director.

Rival aims
Hardliners: far-reaching self-government including control of finances and law and order
Association of Hungarians: self-government for Hungarians in areas where they form a local majority
Moderates: Prepared to be flexible, not strongly committed
Mr Canak and other autonomists want Vojvodina's radio and TV to be independent of Belgrade's control.

Vojvodina's parliament, roughly two thirds of which supports autonomy, was due to discuss the controversy over the media on 15 October. But in an attempt to calm things down - and paper over some of the cracks among the parties in the central government - the debate has been put off for three weeks.

Ethnic map

The question of Vojvodina's status has the potential to divide both the province's own politicians and the already deeply divided leadership in Belgrade.

Refinery on fire after bombing in 1999
Burning issue: Vojvodina is home to Serbia's modest oil industry
It could be enough to bring down the Serbian Government, if other problems do not do so first - new elections are now widely expected, possibly as soon as spring.

About one-third of Vojvodina's two-million-strong population is made up of ethnic minorities. The Hungarians at around 12% are the largest of these groups.

But the local Serbs themselves are split into different groups.

Those with a long ancestry in Vojvodina - who see the province as part of central Europe, as it was until 1918 under the Austro-Hungarian empire - are the most determined advocates of extensive autonomy.

Others, who moved to the prosperous province from poorer areas of the former Yugoslavia - especially the 1990s generation of Serb refugees from Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo - are less keen on the idea of loosening Vojvodina's ties with the rest of Serbia.

One key consideration that's likely to favour the pro-autonomy groups is Vojvodina's relative prosperity.

As Yugoslavia's breadbasket and producer of its modest output of oil, there's growing support for the goal of keeping more of Vojvodina's resources - and tax revenues - from going to Belgrade.

That is a recipe for political wrangling, and is bound to lead to further disputes with the central authorities.

See also:

25 May 01 | Media reports
New spirit of openness in Serbia
13 May 00 | Europe
Milosevic ally shot dead
25 Nov 00 | Media reports
Milosevic congress speech: Excerpts
30 Jun 01 | Europe
Analysis: Milosevic's legacy
02 Jul 01 | Europe
Kostunica's dilemma
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