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Serb Ethnic Cleansing Of Hungarians Alters Northern Province

SERB ``cleansing'' of the multiethnic societies of former Yugoslavia has not been confined to Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Kosovo region of Serbia.

But the character of Vojvodina, one of Yugoslavia's largest, most prosperous provinces, has also been dramatically changed; cleansing there has gone largely unnoticed by the news media because it has been managed - so far - without bloodshed and war. It is by no means sure, moreover, that what has been accomplished will not lead finally to the terror that drove 2 million refugees from ancestral homes in Bosnia.

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Serb intimidation following Belgrade's suppression of Vojvodina's autonomy in 1990 has already forced tens of thousands of its large Hungarian minority to emigrate. With them have left many Serbs hitherto content to live in a mixed ethnic community.

This northern province of old Yugoslavia was created 75 years ago when, following World War I, it was detached from Hungary to be part of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Slovenes, and Croats. Germans and Hungarians left, their places taken by a first big influx of Serb immigrants with eyes on its rich farm potential.

Another population shift followed World War II, when the new Communist regime bestowed land as a reward to its poor partisan supporters from Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

For four decades thereafter, Vojvodina became an economic showpiece of the new republic. It also rapidly moved toward self-rule and its autonomous status - like Kosovo's in the south - was confirmed by a new Yugoslav Constitution in 1974.

In a population of 2 million, about half were Serbs and 22 percent Hungarian, with Croats, Romanians, Slovaks, and Ruthenians making up the rest.

Vojvodina became one of Yugoslavia's four major grain-producing regions. As such, it was a beneficiary of Western economic aid that followed Belgrade's break with the Soviet Union in 1948.

Much of that aid was conditionally focused on modernizing agriculture, and Vojvodina was in the vanguard of the surge of private farming when the Communists abandoned collectivization. It increasingly became a model of a harmonious multiethnic society, its equality of minority rights acknowledged as one of the regime's most notable achievements.

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That remained so until the 1980s when Serbian nationalism began to take its ominous shape. Vojvodina's autonomy - like Kosovo's - was abolished. Serbo-Croatian was made the sole official language; Hungarian was barred from official institutions. Minority language schools, media, and cultural activity were curtailed, and Hungarians in all walks of life were subjected to harrassment. In the last two years at least 40,000 Hungarians - educated young men escaping forced conscription into rump Yugoslavia's Army - fled into neighboring Hungary. Nationalist Serb immigrants poured into Vojvodina to make it more ``Serb.''

What prospects do the remaining Hungarians have? Last year a ``Democratic Convention'' of nonparty individuals seeking to salvage Hungarian interests and civil rights produced a draft for a new concept of autonomy. Belgrade dismissed it as secessionist, and the Hungarian government in Budapest, which praised the draft, was accused of having ``territorial claims.''

The European Union's leaders seem to trust that international opinion will not tolerate cleansing of a community that they say ``is part of Central Europe.'' But the international community's disinclination in the past two years to stand up to Serbia is no encouragement to the belief that now, in fact, it will check further Serb inroads on minority rights.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky's recent statement that Vojvodina could be a ``tempting magnet'' when cleansing ``is over in Bosnia'' seemed gloomy indeed.

Yet it seemed apt enough at a time when Serbia was flouting an unending host of pledges to the United Nations and breaking a cease-fire during the Christmas holiday.

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