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Yugoslavia: Vojvodina Hungarians Concerned By Influx Of Serbs

Tens of thousands of Serbs have fled Kosovo since the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army and Serbian police from the province. Our correspondent reports that some of these displaced persons are moving into Serbia's northern, multiethnic province of Vojvodina, raising concerns among non-Serbs there.

Prague, 2 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the last three weeks since Belgrade undertook its 11-day withdrawal of forces from Kosovo, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says some 70,000 Serbs and Montenegrins have left the province. Several hundred have heeded calls by the UNHCR and Belgrade authorities to return to Kosovo. Most, however, have refused out of fear of retribution from returning ethnic Albanians.

Some of the Serbs fleeing Kosovo have been settling in Serbia's northern, multiethnic province of Vojvodina. In addition to a Serbian majority, Vojvodina is also home to large numbers of Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Roma (Gypsies), Ruthenians and other ethnic groups.

The influx is just the latest in a series of Serbian migrations into Vojvodina over the last 600 years. As a result, ethnic-Hungarians now constitute only some 15 percent of the province's population. Many of them worry that the latest influx will further tip the ethnic balance in favor of Serbs in those Vojvodina communities where Serbs until now have remained in the minority.

The mayor of the Vojvodina town of Senta, Attila Juhasz, told Hungarian (Duna) TV this week that residents fear the arrival in the area soon of Kosovo Serbian policemen withdrawn from Kosovo. Senta has an ethnic-Hungarian majority.

Juhasz says Serbian civilians from Kosovo have already been arriving in Senta sporadically. He says homes and land are being distributed in the neighboring community of Novi Knezevac to Kosovo Serbian refugees. In his words, "out of fear and caution, we are trying to inform the press, the Hungarian public and the world about this in time, since the only weapon Vojvodina Hungarians have are the truth and public opinion."

The last president of Vojvodina before the province lost its autonomy ten years ago, Nandor Major, spoke with RFE/RL's South Slavic Service this week. He said the province's ethnic balance, including the position of the Hungarian minority, has been shaken. Major blames Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and says the problem dates back a decade. "Milosevic grossly violated Serb-Hungarian ties from 1989, taking all substance out of Vojvodina's autonomy, destroying the material basis of Vojvodina's multiethnic society. The Hungarian community lost the environment in which it had established its identity. The Hungarians could not identify with the fighting in Croatia and Bosnia and tens of thousands of Hungarians from the most active generation left Vojvodina. Some 150,000 Serbs made homeless by fighting in Croatia and Bosnia settled in Vojvodina, upsetting the ethnic make-up of the population and the position of the Hungarians."

Major says that pro-regime Serbs benefited by privatization during the 1990s, a process which he says left the Hungarians behind.

Concern over the fate of Vojvodina has recently been expressed by high-ranking officials from outside Yugoslavia.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark said in Budapest last week that Serbs fleeing Kosovo can be expected to be relocated to other provinces, including Vojvodina. He added that NATO is aware of what he called the "tactics" of Yugoslav President Milosevic. He said NATO was "watching closely how the situation in Vojvodina develops." But he described the situation as "primarily a political issue," which he said must be handled by political means.

Not surprisingly, most of the outside concern has been expressed by the government in neighboring Hungary.

Hungarian President Arpad Goncz reiterated last month after returning from a visit to the United States that Hungary backs the hopes for autonomy of ethnic Hungarians living in Vojvodina.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met last week in Budapest with the head of the Vojvodina Hungarian Democratic Party, Andras Agoston. Orban declared that the Hungarian cabinet fully supports the autonomy plans of Hungarians in Vojvodina. The province enjoyed autonomous status comparable to that of Kosovo between 1974 and 1989.

Foreign Ministry state secretary Zsolt Nemeth, who participated in the meeting, later told reporters that Vojvodina Hungarians want "personal autonomy." He said that means they would elect their own leaders in charge of education and other areas of culture.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said last week that ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina are concerned about the resettlement of Kosovar Serbs in their province and the appearance there of paramilitary organizations. He added that a return to autonomy for ethnic Hungarians can only be implemented within the framework of a democratic Yugoslavia.

While visiting the Hungarian city of Pecs near the Yugoslav border this week, Martonyi alleged that ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina are under threat by paramilitary units led by Zeljko Raznjatovic, known as Arkan. But he said there is no reason to panic. Martonyi said that only a small fraction of Kosovo Serbs have fled to Vojvodina. He also acknowledged that Hungary cannot prevent changes to the region's ethnic composition. He said Budapest can act only in the event that Hungarians in Vojvodina are intimidated, insulted or driven away.

Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gabor Horvath said last week that Hungary intends to promote the issue of security for Vojvodina Hungarians and other minorities as a goal of a southeast European stability pact. He announced that Hungary intends to present a three-tiered autonomy concept at an international conference in Sarajevo this month. The first phase calls for implementing "personal autonomy." The second would see implementation of local government. The third phase would constitute the restoration of provincial autonomy for Vojvodina.

It remains to be seen what kind of reception the initiative might receive in Belgrade.