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Yugoslavia: Serbian Parliament Grants Vojvodina Partial Return Of Regional Powers

Serbia's parliament narrowly voted yesterday to return some of the regional powers stripped from the northern province of Vojvodina during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Observers say the relatively tight vote indicates that deep political divisions continue within Serbia. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at yesterday's vote and its future implications for the composition of Serbia and Yugoslavia.

Prague, 24 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After two days of arduous debate, deputies in Serbia's parliament yesterday voted to return a number of regional powers to the northern province of Vojvodina.

Just over half of the 236 parliamentarians participating yesterday voted in favor of legislation returning powers in the areas of agriculture and culture, but not economics. Seventy-two deputies voted against the bill and 42 abstained.

The vote split largely along party lines, and reflects ongoing divisions in Serbian politics. Deputies loyal to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) party voted to return self-government to the northern province, while allies of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic opposed the bill, saying it could lead to the disintegration of Serbia.

Milosevic abolished autonomy for Vojvodina and the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo in 1989 in an attempt to forge a "greater Serbia."

Deputies backing Yugoslav nationalist President Vojislav Kostunica abstained from the vote, arguing that Vojvodina's status cannot be determined until a new post-Milosevic Serbian Constitution is adopted.

Nenad Canak, the president of Vojvodina's parliament and an outspoken advocate for autonomy, says the vote shows that "Serbia has not gotten rid of its nationalists."

But Velimir Ilic, chairman of the New Serbia party, says that his party -- allied with Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) -- abstained from voting because they want to see further amendments to the bill.

"We didn't want to vote against the government DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia) and their amendments. That's what we voted for at the beginning. But we will vote against it unless all 30 amendments [that the DSS wants] are in it."

Pro-autonomy leaders in Vojvodina, who claim the rich agricultural region is losing money to the central government in Belgrade, say they are not seeking independence for the region, merely a return to the self-rule granted under a 1974 constitution.

DOS deputy Mile Icakov says that despite the party feuding and the tightness of yesterday's vote, the results are still a major step forward for Vojvodina autonomy.

"That's something we had and that's something that belonged to us and nobody has to grant it to us, but to return back what was taken away against the law and against the constitution. The next thing is about Kosovo. Everyone in Serbia has already agreed on the largest-possible autonomy for Kosovo. Nothing will change if they do the same for Vojvodina. It would be fair to give Vojvodina the [same rights]. It's not fair that the bad kid gets everything he asks for and the good kid gets nothing."

Vojvodina is the most ethnically diverse region of Serbia, with minorities representing some 30 percent of the two million citizens living there. Of those, Hungarians dominate with some 10 percent of the overall population.

Icakov says that the minorities of Vojvodina want a return to autonomy because they feel their rights will be better protected.

"The Hungarians and the others -- the Romanians, the Slovaks, the Russians -- they are all for great autonomy of Vojvodina because they know and understand that Vojvodina is the best region in the political organization [to] protect all their rights [as minorities].

Goran Stanivukovic, a lawyer from Novi Sad, says that the debate over Vojvodina's status will continue at least for the next 10 days as Serbian deputies consider some 70 amendments to the legislation. Stanivukovic believes that the vote and ongoing debate represents much more than the future of Vojvodina.

"The law is going to be finalized in the parliament, because as you know there are more than 70 amendments to what is proposed. So the parliament voted yesterday just for the law in general. In the next couple of days, maybe 10 days, the parliament will discuss all 70 or more amendments to the proposal. It's not a step towards autonomy for sure, but it is a step towards decentralization of Serbian republic."

Stanivukovic says Vojvodina will not easily give up its claim to autonomy and the continuing debate is likely to push political parties further and further apart. With Kosovo and Montenegro itching for independence, he says, Vojvodina's future status in Serbia is an issue whose importance cannot be underestimated.