Who cares about Vojvodina?
Branislav Despotovic, a native of Vojvodina, writes about Serbia’s northern province:
Nationalists are now firmly in charge in Belgrade. Tomislav Nikolic is president. He is a long-time associate Vojislav Seselj, on trial at the Hague Tribunal for the crimes against humanity. Ivica Dacic, once spokesman of Slobodan Milosevic’s party, has become prime minister. There is a lot of discussion these days in Serbia and beyond about the attitude of the new Serbian leaders towards European Union, towards Serbia’s neighbors, and especially towards Kosovo, which official Belgrade still regards as the southern Serbian province.
Most people forget that Serbia has another, northern province, Vojvodina, which has its own unresolved issues with Belgrade. The inhabitants of Vojvodina don’t want to separate from Serbia, but they also don’t want to tolerate the humiliation and deprivation that began more than 20 years ago.
Vojvodina was one of the most developed parts of Yugoslavia until 1988 when Milosevic, with help from Nikolic and Seselj’s nationalists, abolished the province’s autonomy and put it under direct rule of the Serbian government. Prior to 1988, on average one new factory was built each year, hundreds of miles of roads and rail tracks were constructed, bridges and hospitals opened. Around 90% of the money earned in Vojvodina stayed in Vojvodina, unemployment barely existed, and public safety was at the highest level in Europe.
Today, more than two decades later, the Serbian government controls every aspect of life in Vojvodina, even though the region has its own legally elected institutions. The province is underdeveloped for the first time in its recent history, villages are dying and young people are moving abroad. Crime and unemployment have increased. Vojvodina has regained some of the authority it once had, but only on paper. It didn’t get back the right to manage its own finances.
According to the 2006 Serbian Constitution, Vojvodina should get 7% from the Republic budget each year, but that has never happened. In reality, Vojvodina has been contributing 35%-40% of national budget annually, while receiving less than its constitutional 7%. Over the last 6 years, Vojvodina has been shorted 600 million euros. This is a significant amount of money in a country where the most successful company, Oil Company of Serbia, was sold to the Russians for 400 million euros. The government of Vojvodina has appealed to the constitutional court for protection.
Even the Democratic party, which governed Serbia after the fall of Milosevic, wasn’t in a hurry to give Vojvodina back the rights Milosevic took away in 1988. But it was partially done in 2008. Then, on the same day that the new nationalist government was formed this summer, the Serbian constitutional court decided that 22 sections of the law returning rights to Vojvodina are unconstitutional, effectively prohibiting the province from having its own capital in Novi Sad, establishing a provincial agricultural policy, operating an office in Brussels or financing the work of Academy of Sciences and Arts of Vojvodina.
In a 2011 poll, nearly half of the citizens of Novi Sad said the current status of Vojvodina within Serbia was not satisfactory. Five per cent thought that Vojvodina should be independent. With nationalists now in power in Belgrade and democrats in Novi Sad, the situation can be expected to deteriorate. The nationalists will want Vojvodina to have as little authority as possible and remain dependent on Belgrade. The citizens of Vojvodina will be looking for their rights.