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Unease mounts in Serbian province

First there was Kosovo. Then Montenegro. Now, a third territorial issue is gaining urgency in the fragile country of Yugoslavia, where a new, democratically elected government is struggling to consolidate power.

Vojvodina, the ethnically diverse northern province, where the soil is rich and the lifestyle is good, is demanding autonomy to distance itself from the centralized government of Serbia.

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The issue is already splitting the coalition government of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, and is likely to intensify as leaders in Vojvodina (pronounced Voy-vo-dee-na) get bolder.

Part of the problem has to do with money. For years, Vojvodina has been the most productive part of Serbia, feeding the republic during times of war with its strong agricultural base, and generating nearly half its gross national product. Life has always been a little bit sweeter here in the lush plains, where the population is more educated, and the ties to Europe are stronger.

But much of that wealth has been sucked up by corrupt governments in Belgrade, which give little back other than bureaucratic regulations and draft notices for the young men.

"Belgrade makes it difficult for us to do anything," says Slobodan Stanisic, a resident of Novi Sad, who at the moment is out of work. "Registering a car takes months, and utility bills are too high. We pay taxes to [Belgrade], but they give us nothing back."

Nationalism and ethnicity

The issue also has ethnic undertones, always dangerous in a country where nationalism runs deep. Ethnic Hungarians, of which there are about 225,000, make up 10 percent of Vojvodina's population. They say they are denied basic rights of language and education, and that they're losing most talented young adults because of that. The Hungarians have teamed up with traditionally Serbian political parties to make a formidable coalition.

"Would you be restive if tomorrow someone said you couldn't speak your own language in the city where you were born?" asks Jozef Kasa, president of the largest ethnic Hungarian political party, referring to federal laws requiring that only the Serbia language may be used in official settings. "Would you be restive if someone took the money out of your pocket?"

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While Vojvodina's demands stop well short of independence, they are nonetheless potent. Mr. Kasa and the majority of the Vojvodina legislators are asking that they have autonomy similar to that granted to Vojvodina and Kosovo by Communist leader Josip Broz Tito in the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution (and taken away by former President Slobodan Milosevic in 1989).

Under Tito's model, created to weaken Serbia, then the most populous republic of Yugoslavia, Vojvodina and Kosovo were granted executive, legislative, and judicial autonomy.

Additionally, under the autonomy model pushed by the Vojvodina legislature, residents would pay less taxes to Belgrade, and locally run public companies could keep most of their money in the region. Although that would initially hurt the rest of Serbia, the impact would diminish if the overall economy progressed from agriculture to industry, as officials plan.

Recent surveys taken by a private Novi Sad polling company, Scan, indicate that the economics of autonomy have a resounding effect - as many as 75 percent of the 2.5 million people living in Vojvodina support autonomy. Yet, 70 percent of the population consider themselves ethnic Serbs, so violent confrontation or a drive for all-out statehood seems for the moment unlikely.

The lengths to which the Vojvodinians go to win autonomy may depend on the reaction of Belgrade. "If our government in Belgrade is ready to talk in a civilized way, Vojvodina will remain a part of Serbia," says a Belgrade politician in the ruling coalition who asked not to be named. "But if they try to talk in the old ways, then the problems between Belgrade and Vojvodina will be very serious."

So far Mr. Kostunica's government has declined to publicly address Vojvodina. Officials have said they will wait until they solve the problem of Montenegro, which could take a year or more. Leaders from Montenegro, the second republic of Yugoslavia, are considering seeking independence, and may hold a referendum this summer.

Kosovo is also a major problem occupying the new government. Once an autonomous region, like Vojvodina, it is now in the hands of the majority ethnic-Albanian population and the international community. The instability in Kosovo has at times moved into southern Serbia, testing both the patience and the security forces of the Belgrade government.

Many Serbs are afraid that what happened to Kosovo could happen to Vojvodina, that if the northern province is given an opening, their demands will only increase. In a country that has been involved in four wars in the past decade, those fears are perhaps justified.

"The only thing we won't talk about is further splitting Serbia; everything else is negotiable," says Rada Marinkov, vice-president of Vojvodina's executive council and a member of Kostunica's political party. He opposes the autonomy movement.

"Vojvodina can't have legislative, executive, or judicial authority," he adds. "That would make a state within a state."

While Kostunica maintains a hard line against autonomy for Vojvodina, his main political rival, Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, is thought to be more open to greater rights for the northern region. Although Mr. Djindjic and Kostunica are for the moment joined together in the political alliance that brought down Mr. Milosevic, they are likely to go head-to-head in the coming years, as each tries to fill a massive power vacuum in Belgrade.

Their positions on Vojvodina, in many ways, typify the differences between the two. Kostunica, a strong nationalist, is unyielding on some issues with territorial and ethnic implications. Djindjic is more willing to decentralize the country, doling out power to places like Montenegro and Vojvodina.

Popular sentiment

Pro-autonomy leaders in Vojvodina, meanwhile, are confident that they will win in the end. They point out that, with greater access to the media and other levers of power, popular sentiment is moving in their favor, even though they no longer have a Yugoslav president to vilify as they did during the Milosevic years. At the same time, ethnic Hungarians, who were denied jobs and appointments during the '90s, are becoming increasingly bold.

"I am sure we will have our autonomy in the next five years," says Nikola Nikolic, chief of staff to the president of the Vojvodina legislature. "And if they don't listen, we will go to the streets. We will use all of our methods to get what is ours."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor