Vojvodina

Introduction / Definiton: 

Vojvodina is an autonomous province that comprises northern Serbia. Before it became part of Yugoslavia in 1920, it was ruled by the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its population is ethnically diverse, with ethnic settlements dispersed throughout the territory. According to the 2002 census, Serbs comprise approximately 65 percent of the region’s population, with Hungarians the next largest ethnic group at 14 percent, and Croats and Slovaks following with nearly 2.8 percent each. Other groups with more than one percent of the population are Yugoslavs, Montenegrins, Romanians, and Roma (Republic of Serbia 2002, p. 2).[i] While Vojvodina did not directly experience war in the 1990s, political events in Serbia likely had some effect on population movements, as the number of Serbs increased significantly in the 1990s, from 57 percent in 1991. Conversely, the number of Hungarians in the province has decreased from 17 percent in 1991. As an indicator of population shifts across time, Serbs had been 34.9 percent of the population in 1921, while Hungarians had been 28.1 percent at that time (Kocsis and Kocsis-Hodosi 1998, p. 143).

Before 1989, Vojvodina was an autonomous region within Yugoslavia which held a legal status similar to that of Kosovo. Both provinces had some control over local affairs near to those of Republics within Yugoslavia. In essence, these two provinces maintained a legal status above that of regions but less than that of Republics in a structure of asymmetric autonomy. This autonomous status for both provinces was revoked by Slobodan Milošević in 1989. However, in January of 2002 the Serbian Parliament voted to restore Vojvodina’s territorial autonomy within Serbia (RFE/RL Newsline, 2001, 2002, Večernje Novosti 2002). Vojvodina now maintains its own 120-member Assembly to oversee regional affairs.

Support for Vojvodina’s autonomy has been especially strong among the region’s Hungarians, who have also proposed some forms of non-territorial government for Hungarians (Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, VMSz, 1999, Népszabadság 2003, and interviews 2001).

Even many of the region’s ethnic Serbs also support autonomy, given Vojvodina’s rather distinct history and strong regional economy relative to Serbia. Several local pro-autonomy parties are supported by ethnic Serbs, as ethnic Hungarians tend to vote for Hungarian parties. However, other Serb groups, such as Serbian Radical Party (SRS), categorically oppose any further separation from Belgrade.

Historical Evolution: 

The territory of Vojvodina is composed of portions of the regions of Bačka, Banat, and Srem where they come together in the north of present-day Serbia (Magocsi 1995, pp. 135, 140; Jelavich 1983 Vol. I, p. 316).[i] Vojvodina played a role in the preservation of Serbian culture during the 1800s, as Serbs in the Vojvodinan region of the Hapsburg Empire were able to transfer their educational resources to Serbs who had been under Ottoman rule (Jelavich, 1983 Vol. I, p. 242). However, according to lines drawn on maps, the region has had a quite different history than that of southern Serbia. The region was taken from the Ottoman rule by the Hapsburgs in a series of battles from 1683-1718 (Magocsi 1995, p. 65). In contrast, Serbia became independent from the Ottomans in a slow process that began a century afterwards. Soon after obtaining the region, the Hapsburgs established Vojvodina as a military frontier against the Ottomans to the south. The Hapsburgs also encouraged groups from throughout their Empire to settle in the region, which had been depopulated during the period of Ottoman rule. It is partly through this resettlement process that the region became so ethnically diverse (Magocsi 1995, pp. 65 and 66).

As part of the resettlement push, the Hapsburgs also encouraged Serbs to come to Vojvodina from the Ottoman Empire to the south. These new Serbian arrivals quickly established a flourishing Serbian culture in the region, and Vojvodina thus became a source of the Serbian intelligentsia that later helped drive the emergence of an independent Serbia during the 1800s (Jelavich 1983 Vol. I, p. 242).

These new Serbs in Vojvodina were also among the first of the Hapsburg inhabitants to rise up against the Hapsburgs in the attempted revolution of 1848, and fighting was heavy in the region. The Vojvodina Serbs did receive some very limited concessions from the empire between 1849 and 1860 (Magocsi 1995, p. 78; Jelavich 1983 Vol. I, p. 316, Banac 1984, p. 75). However, these successes were short-lived. With the creation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in the compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867, Vojvodina became part of a new Hungarian state. Serbs living there were thus subject to some of the magyarization policies intended to improve the status of Hungarian language and culture at the expense of those of other groups (Lendvai 2003, p. 296).

However, fates shifted again following the dismantling of Hungary after World War I. With the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Vojvodina became incorporated into the newly-formed state of Yugoslavia. Hungary, which lost two thirds of its territory to Yugoslavia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Austria in this treaty, refused to acknowledge this new border with Yugoslavia until 1922 (Magocsi 1995, p. 128). Hungary’s desire to re-unite with some of its lost territories made it an easy ally for the Germans during World War II. Hungary indeed re-acquired a number of territories during the war – including the Ba?ka portion of Vojvodina,[ii] which it held between 1938 and 1944 (Magocsi 1995, pp. 134-35). The demographics of Vojvodina changed greatly during this period. Many of the region’s Jews and Serbs were murdered or forced to flee during the war, and many Germans and some Hungarians were forced to leave Vojvodina after the war.

With the end of the war, Vojvodina was restored to a new version of the state of Yugoslavia. This socialist state was far more decentralized than its pre-war cousin. It comprised six republics and two autonomous regions. Vojvodina was granted the status of an autonomous region, along with the region of Kosovo, within the republic of Serbia (Jelavich 1983 Vol. II, p. 296). Over time, the power of the republics and the regions was increased, especially when a 1974 law granted the Kosovo and Vojvodina autonomous regions some powers that came close to those of the republics (Magocsi 1995 p. 175; Stokes 1993 p. 226). They thus held a status in between those of regions and republics in a structure of asymmetric decentralization – at least the trappings of such, as Yugoslavia remained a non-democratic state.

These powers were not to last long. The Yugoslav state slowly began to unravel following the death of Marshall Tito in 1980. Soon afterwards, Albanian students in Kosovo began demanding that Kosovo be promoted from an autonomous region to republic status. This unrest set off a period of heavy Serbian police actions and Albanian resistance in Kosovo during the 1980s. It was in this tense environment that Slobodan Miloševi? was able to rise to power, just as Yugoslavia’s neighbors were feeling the stirrings of democratization. As one of his first tasks, in 1989 Milošević removed the autonomous status for Kosovo and Vojvodina, placing the regions under strong control of the Serbian republic. Some say that this removal was a response to the protests and unrest. The actions were, however, related to a chain of events that led to the dismantling of Yugoslavia. Not long afterwards, the republics of Slovenia and Croatia, who enjoyed greater economic success than the rest of Yugoslavia, chose to secede (Stokes 1993, pp. 228-36).

Some of the earliest fighting in the Yugoslav wars of dissolution took place in Eastern Slavonia, near Vojvodina. But the province itself escaped large-scale group warfare. Several inhabitants left the republic during the war for a variety of reasons, including to escape being drafted into the Yugoslav (or Serbian) army. The region’s proximity to other states and the presence of a variety of ethnic networks on the territory facilitated these out-migrations. During the wars, the Hungarian and Croatian states perpetually expressed concern about the fate of the region’s ethnic minorities. While there has indeed been low-level violence and harassment against Hungarians and Croats by radical Serb groups, the region is most notable for its peace between groups. Hungary has remained strongly interested in developments in Vojvodina. In July 1999, when a U.S. official visited Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to thank him for his assistance on Kosovo, he was surprised when Orbán proposed autonomy for Vojvodina as a proper thank-you (Népszabadság 1999).

Ironically, it was the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia during the spring and summer of 1999 that did more direct damage to Vojvodina than the Yugoslav war itself, including the killing of local civilians. In the regional capital of Novi Sad, nearly all of the bridges across the Danube River were severed in the bombing campaign, cutting off water and other supplies. Some government buildings in the town were also destroyed. In addition, the bombing of a nearby oil refinery endangered members of all ethnic groups with toxic fumes for several days (BBC News, 1999).

As the Serbian opposition slowly rebuilt over the months following the bombing campaign, Vojvodina became one of the centers of resistance. Vojvodina voted heavily against Milošević in the local elections that preceded his ouster (BBC News, 2000). With the later state-wide elections and his departure in December 2000, the new Serbian parliament was more amendable to the notion of Vojvodina’s autonomy. In January of 2002, they voted to restore some, but not all, of its former powers (BBC News, 2002).

[i] The Banat extends into Romania.

[ii] And Baranja, now part of Croatia.

Resolution / Status: 

Vojvodina contains two branches of support for autonomy. First, a number of local elites of various ethnicities have been working for the past several years to restore the region’s territorial autonomy (LSV 2001, pp. 17-22). This drive is aided by the fact that the province is wealthier than other portions of Serbia, as Vojvodinans of all ethnicities believe their taxes subsidize other Serbian regions (Interviews, 2001). In an extensive 2001 survey on the question of autonomy, a total of 54 percent thought that Vojvodina should either have its pre-1989 autonomous status restored, or should have even more autonomy (Puzigaća and Molnar, 2001, pp. 11, 19).[i] This multi-ethnic movement for an autonomous status for the province, which rallies behind a Vojvodina flag of blue, yellow, and green, has put forth a clear call for territorial autonomy that would grant more political and fiscal powers to the region. Some members of this movement view such autonomy within the structure of the Republic of Serbia, while others would like a republic that could form a federation with Serbia. However, neither group strongly advocates for full independence.

This movement for territorial autonomy has been rather successful. After a series of talks during the fall of 2001, in January 2002, the Serbian parliament approved the restoration of Vojvodina’s autonomy by a vote of 119 to 74, with 42 abstentions. However, the measure fell short of the degree of autonomy that the region held before 1989, and thus constitutes a “bare minimum” for many of Vojvodina’s leaders (RFE/RL, 2001 and 2002; Večernje Novosti 2002). Some continue to view the current allocation of autonomy as merely a step to further powers or republic status within Serbia.

The second movement for autonomy is spearheaded by ethnic Hungarians in the province. While Hungarians generally support the broad-based movement for Vojvodina’s territorial autonomy, the Hungarian parties have also proposed that ethnic Hungarians should be given some non-territorial governing powers over matters important to them – particularly in the realms of language, culture, and education. Some proposals have included the notion of some territorial autonomy for areas with local Hungarian majorities or the creation of a non-territorial Hungarian National Council to make decisions regarding language and culture (VMSz 1999). There are large concentrations of Hungarians in the north of province on the border with Hungary, but much of the Hungarian population is quite dispersed throughout Vojvodina. While such autonomy proposals were common among the ethnic Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine during the early 1990s, it was in Vojvodina that the issue of autonomy has remained an issue of serious political debate, and the framework proposal there became quite developed.

The Hungarian effort to establish a higher degree of minority self-government has also been relatively successful. In March of 2002, the Federal Parliament of Yugoslavia passed a law on national minorities that included some provisions outlined by the Hungarian program. The most intriguing appear in Part IV of the law, which outlines the creation of a Federal Council of National Minorities, comprised of representatives of the National Councils of each minority group (OSCE 2002). The councils are specifically designed to protect language, education, media, and culture for minorities, and are to be funded by the state budget and through donations (VMSz 2002). It also allows for localities with high concentrations of a particular minority to work together, which opens up the possibility of forming a loose organization of Hungarian-strong towns and regions. Some towns with large Hungarian minorities have begun to set up such structural connections (Népszabadság, 2003).

At present, it appears that these policy responses to the drive for autonomy have been rather successful. Vojvodina held its first assembly elections in October 2004, which of the 120 seats produced 34 seats for the Democratic party, 11 seats for the largest Hungarian party, and 36 seats for the Serbian Radical party, as well as strong representations for some regional parties and other Serbian parties (LSV 2004). In the 2008 elections, the Democratic party took 70 seats, the Serbian Radical party 24, the Hungarian Coalition 9, and 17 seats were distributed among three other parties (Skupština 2010).

Following the dissolution of the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro in May of 2006, Serbia passed a new constitution in October 2006 that formalized Vojvodina (along with Kosovo) as an autonomous province with some extended financial powers (Constitution 2006).[ii] The new constitution was initially resisted by some of the Vojvodina leadership, who thought it should grant further autonomy to the province (Radio B92, 2006), but opposition appeared to quiet after the successful constitutional referendum. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 remains contested by the Serbian state.

[i] These figures are all the more striking given that the survey included a large category of responses from “Yugoslavs,” who also supported autonomy. Only 32 percent of those identifying as Serbs thought that autonomy for Vojvodina should not be discussed or that it would lead to more problems.

[ii] Section VII, especially articles 182-184.

Prospects / Analysis: 

The electoral diversity the Vojvodina’s Assembly demonstrates that groups are participating in the elections rather than boycotting them, a positive sign for its future. However, the issue of Kosovo, which has been Vojvodina’s sister province in status since World War II, might prove destabilizing. Some proponents of strong autonomy for Vojvodina have stated that they could expect a similar status to what happens in Kosovo. Over the past few years, concrete reactions to the independence have not emerged. But proposals of more power for Vojvodina, similar to the discussion of more power for Serbs in Bosnia following Kosovo’s independence, are likely to remain in political discussions for the near future.

References / Further Reading: 

Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, VMSz. 1999. Party documents.

Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, VMSz. 1999. “Draft Agreement on the Political and Legal Frameworks of the Self-government of Voivodina and the National communities of Voivodina.” Totovo Selo: Graphic Studio, 1999. English available from party (previously on website). Related documents available in Hungarian at: http://www.vmsz.org.rs/article.php?lg=hu&id_article=113

Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, VMSz. 2002. “Törvény a nemzeti kisebbségek jogainak és szabadságainak védelmérÅ'l.” Previously on website, related documents available in Hungarian at: http://www.vmsz.org.rs/article.php?lg=hu&id_article=113

Banac, Ivo. 1984. The National Question in Yugoslavia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

BBC News. 1999. “Eyewitness: Serbia after the War.” September 23.

BBC News. 1999. “Serbian Toxic Fumes Fear.” April 18.

BBC News. 2000. “Top Yugoslav Resignations.” October 9.

BBC News.2002. “Vojvodina Denied Self-Rule.” January 24.

Constitution of the Republic of Serbia. 2006. Available at: http://www.mfa.gov.rs/Facts/UstavRS_pdf.pdf

Interviews conducted by author. 2001. Novi Sad, July.

Jelavich, Barbara. 1983. History of the Balkans, Volumes I and II. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kocsis, Károly, and Eszter Kocsis –Hodosi. 1998. Ethnic Geography of the Hungarian Minorities in the Carpathian Basin. Budapest: Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Lendvai, Paul. 2003. The Hungarians. London: Hurst and Co.

LSV, Liga socijaldemokrata Vojvodine. 2001. “Republkia Vojvodina: Put mira, razvoja I stabilnosti,” In LSV, Republika Vojvodina i drugi programski dokumenti. Novi Sad: LSV.

LSV, Liga socijaldemokrata Vojvodine. 2004. “Pokrajinski Poslanici,” Party document.

Magocsi, Paul. 1995. Historical Atlas of East Central Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Népszabadság. 1999.

Népszabadság. 2003. “Vajdasági autonómia – tervek és félelmek,” February 21.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 2002. OSCE Mission to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, “Background Report on Recently Adopted Federal Law on the Protection and Freedoms of National Minorities.” March. Online at: http://www.osce.org/documents/fry/2002/03/124_en.pdf

Puzigaća, Milka, and Aleksander Molnar. 2001. Istraživanje javnog mnenja autonomija Vojvodine. Novi Sad: SCAN.

RFE/RL Newsline. 2001 and 2002. October 23 and December 18, 2001, and January 24 and 29, 2002,

Radio B92, 2006. “Dissidence over Constitution in Vojvodina.” October 12.

Republic of Serbia. 2002. Republic Statistical Office, Communication no. 295, December 24, 2002, “Statistics of Population,” SN31.

Skupština Autonomne Pokrajine Vojvodine. 2010. Listing of seats in regional parliament at: http://www.vojvodina.gov.rs/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=99&Itemid=59

Stokes, Gale. 1993. The Walls Came Tumbling Down. New York: Oxford University Press.

Večernje Novosti, 2002. “Večina iza omnibus zakona.” January 24.