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Jul 7, 1999 | 05:00 GMT

5 mins read

Hungary Supports Vojvodina Autonomy Plan

The Hungarian Foreign Ministry announced July 6 that two political parties representing the ethnic Hungarian minority living in the Yugoslav province of Vojvodina had created an autonomy plan for the province. The plan, introduced at a meeting in Budapest between the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (VMSZ) and the Vojvodina Hungarian Democratic Party (VMDP) that was mediated by the Foreign Ministry of Hungary, outlines three possible levels of autonomy for Vojvodina Hungarians: personal autonomy, local autonomy, and territorial autonomy. Personal autonomy would involve personal rights granted due to ethnic status, such as language rights. Local autonomy would mean granting rights to individual ethnic Hungarian communities such as local police forces and village self-government. Territorial autonomy for the whole province would be a return to the autonomy Vojvodina had before 1989.

The Hungarian government has officially announced it would promote the Vojvodina autonomy plan at a European Union summit taking place later this month in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said in a July 4 interview for the Duna TV satellite service that the autonomy plan for Vojvodina should become part of political and economic reconstruction of Yugoslavia. Martonyi said the Vojvodina question should be "put on the agenda now, because now is the time to put the issue of Yugoslavia's democratization on the agenda." According to Martonyi, territorial autonomy would be the most difficult to achieve, no matter how "fine and pleasing the idea is." The Hungarian Foreign Minister said implementation of self-government for Hungarian communities in Vojvodina would be more realistic.

The Hungarian government's support of autonomy for the ethnic minority in Vojvodina was confirmed by the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, Jozsef Toth. Toth argued that Budapest views granting autonomy to ethnic communities in Yugoslavia as part of a wider process of democratization and decentralization in Yugoslavia. According to Toth, Hungary has already consulted with its allies - Washington and NATO - on the Vojvodina autonomy issue, and the allies agree that the question should be addressed in the framework of the "overall democratization of Yugoslavia." Toth said Budapest believes Washington shares its view that lack of democracy and ethnic rights are at the root of ongoing problems in the Balkans and Eastern Europe - exploding to the surface in Bosnia and Yugoslavia - and, therefore, supports Hungary's initiative on Vojvodina. Budapest also claims that Yugoslavia's opposition parties support ethnic minorities' rights.

That said, it is worth noting that ethnic Hungarians constitute only 16-17 percent of the total population of Vojvodina, and according to some sources this number is even lower - about 10 percent. Hungarian government's talk about territorial autonomy for the province is, therefore, surprising. It is apparent that Budapest has decided to use the post-Kosovo situation in Yugoslavia to attain a certain degree of political autonomy for its minority living in the country. And Budapest acknowledges that the levels of autonomy could be "sequenced layers over time," with the ultimate goal being territorial autonomy.

It is not clear at this point how far Washington and NATO would go in supporting Budapest on the issue. The U.S. support for any form of Vojvodina autonomy would give a strong impetus to representatives of ethnic Hungarians to push for similar administrative arrangements in Romania and Slovakia - home to substantial Hungarian minorities. Macedonia and Montenegro with large Albanian minorities would face similar danger. Ethnic separatism is on the rise in the post-Kosovo Eastern and Central Europe, and though it may well be that ethnic issues are the root cause of Eastern and Southeastern Europe's perpetual unrest, they are a minefield for even the best intentioned. The idea that spreading democracy and ensuring the rights of ethnic minorities waltz along happily, hand in hand, is attractive but misleading. Distortions of democracy, the repression of ethnic minorities, and cross border interference swirl into a vicious cycle far easier to get into than out of. And the precedents set in Kosovo and Bosnia only enhance fears that opening ethnic debate leads inexorably to separatism, war, and partition. That is not to say that the ethnic issue should be buried, merely that its pitfalls should not and can not be viewed lightly.

Hungary may be touting ethnic rights and autonomy as ancillary to democratization, but addressed too early, the issue can be a stumbling block to democracy as well. For Belgrade and other regional capitals, the Kosovo precedent is a threat. The moral of the story is not necessarily that ethnic issues should be dealt with through peace and generosity, but that ethnic issues run amuck can end with violent national partition. It is clear that the Vojvodina issue provides NATO with a lever against Milosevic and an instrument for strengthening his opposition. By creating a sense that the continuation of Milosevic's government threatens a further devolution of Serbia, NATO strengthens the case of Milosevic's opponents. But there is a fine line to be walked here. The question of autonomy for Hungarians living outside of Hungary's borders is a potentially explosive issue in Romania and Slovakia. NATO must walk a fine line between pressuring Milosevic and creating precedents that create concern elsewhere. A return to pre-1989 autonomy is one thing. Anything beyond that could easily increase tensions elsewhere in the region.

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