MINELRES: Fwd: EP Hearing on the Situation of Minorities in Vojvodina: Statement by Sonja Biserko

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Sat Oct 29 18:15:42 2005


Original sender: Balkan Human Rights List <office@greekhelsinki.gr>


HEARING ON THE SITUATION OF MINORITIES IN VOJVODINA:
STATEMENT BY SONJA BISERKO, 
CHAIRPERSON OF THE HELSINKI COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN SERBIA

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

The European Parliament’s decision to place the Vojvodina issue on its
agenda is more than welcome, though, in my view, somewhat delayed. Here
I primarily have in mind the fact that today’s situation in Vojvodina is
a product of the fifteen-year-old policy of Serbia’s ethnic
consolidation and unitarization. By systematically marginalizing
democratic and individual values, such policy has even questioned basic
tenets of today’s Europe such as anti-fascism and interethnic tolerance. 

The minority issue is among major indicators of ethno-nationalism and
its intrinsic ethnic intolerance. Therefore, the problem of minorities
should be placed in a context that provides an in-depth understanding of
the matter. 

State nationalism, earmarking the past 20 years of Serbia’s history, has
unavoidably generated minorities’ defensive nationalism. One should bear
in mind that the 1990 Constitution annulled Vojvodina’s autonomy and
that, ever since, Vojvodina has been Belgrade’s subordinate in every
aspect. Vojvodina, therefore, can be labeled the biggest “domestic”
victim of the official Belgrade’s warring policy  the policy that has
impaired her ethnic structure and economically devastated her. Serbian
authorities have practically fueled ethnic intolerance and taken
positive minority steps only under pressure or to keep up foreign policy
appearances.   

Further, younger generations  minority population in the first place 
were primary targets of the draft. This primarily refers to Vojvodina
Croats and Hungarians. The Croats were exposed to permanent pressure and
maltreatment, and, by the means of the so-called silent ethnic
cleansing, were almost expelled from Vojvodina at outbreak of the wars
in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia. Today, there are practically no
Croats in Hrtkovci, Slankamen, Petrovaradin, Kukujevci and other places. 

On the other hand, Serbian refugees from Croatia have been deliberately
settled in Vojvodina’s multiethnic communities. That only aggravated the
minorities-refugees atmosphere. Even the Roma from Kosovo have been
moved to Subotica’s neighborhoods inhabited by Hungarians. Having
brought with themselves the burden of their own frustration with
inter-ethnic cohabitation, refugees have only additionally radicalized
ethnic relations in Vojvodina. Thus, in early 1990s, when first refugees
from Croatia settled in Vojvodina, it were Vojvodina Croats who became
the first targets of physical assaults. 

In parallel, Hungarians  for instance those from Potisje, North Backa -
display the tendency of secluding themselves, which is an outcome of the
lacking interethnic communication. Hungarian national institutions also
move north. Even the only daily in Hungarian, Magyar Szo, moved its seat
from Novi Sad to Subotica.  

After the change of regime of October 5, 2000, Serbia has made some
progress in the domain of minority rights. However, the progress was
more related to judicial sphere than to real life. The Law on Minorities
has been passed at the federal level as a precondition to the membership
of the Council of Europe. The Framework Convention on the Protection of
National Minorities has been signed and minorities’ national councils
established. The Ministry of Human Rights has staged a campaign with a
view to promoting ethnic tolerance. However, all that was not sufficient
to change the predominantly negative attitude towards minorities.
Political will aimed at improving the overall social climate, marked by
xenophobia and autism, is still lacking. The state has not only failed
to develop a proactive minority policy, but also her authorized agencies
rarely, if ever, adequately punish ethnically motivated violence. All in
all, the state policy when it comes to Vojvodina  and not only during
Milosevic’s era, but also after his ouster  has never been focused on
minorities’ integration into overall political and economic community.
Therefore, minority representatives cannot but turn to international
organizations such as the Council of Europe or OSCE to have their
problems solved.  

The rise of the extreme Right and nationalistic forces after the 2003
elections nothing but added fuel to the flames of inter-ethnic relations
in 2004. Ethno-nationalism was once again installed as a predominant
political ideology. This brought about a plethora of anti-minority
incidents, in Vojvodina in the first place. Afterwards, such incidents
have spread all over Serbia.  

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia and other
non-governmental organizations have documented all assaults at members
of minority communities, attacks against their religious and cultural
institutions, and desecration of their graveyards, while at the same
time alerting the public and relevant authorities about such threatening
trends. Hungarians and Croats have been mostly targeted. Assaults
against members of Slovak and Ruthenian minority communities have been
also registered. Intolerance for and violence against the Roma are
practically constant.  

As a rule, the state has responded inadequately. Incidents have been
minimized. More often than not, public prosecutors failed to react ex
officio, while the police came public with contradictory information
about the number of incidents. All that just fueled the feeling that
incidents were the objects of manipulation, and added to minorities’
sense of insecurity. 

Once the Hungarian question had been internationalized, the number of
ethnically motivated incidents decreased. Exposed to international
pressure, the state begun to implement some provisions of the Law on
Local Self-Government. For instance, local ombudsmen have been
appointed, councils for interethnic relations set up, and actions aimed
at improving the climate of tolerance launched. Some actions at the
level of the states of Serbia-Montenegro and Hungary have also taken
place: for instance, representatives of the two parliaments have opened
a tolerance camp at the Palic Lake. 
 
However, no substantive progress in the state-minorities relations has
been made. The minority law has been tardily, if at all, implemented
since the state had not given up its ethnic concept. Financial resources
necessary for proper functioning of minority institutions are scarce. An
attitude as such additionally isolates minorities that keep secluding
themselves and looking up to their motherlands. Young Croats and
Hungarians usually go to their native lands to get education, and only a
few of them return to Vojvodina after graduation. In brief, Vojvodina
will be deprived of her minorities in the long run.  

By its ignoring stance, the government has tried to justify and
normalize nationalism as a ruling ideology. A productive response by the
liberal, civil alternative failed to materialize, since such alternative
in Vojvodina has not found yet an adequate counterpart in Belgrade. 

A state constituted on ethnicity cannot solve the minority question
democratically, for the state as such, as a rule, treats minorities as a
factor of disturbance. Against this background, minorities tend to find
a way out of difficulties in various forms of autonomy and special
statuses. Such requests make the majority doubt their loyalty and just
add to its belief that ethnic pluralism is a burden one should get rid
of.

The fact that “Vojvodina’s institutional frame”  crucial for maintenance
of the province’s interethnic structure and the spirit of tolerance  has
been reduced to nothing is a major stumbling block in the way of solving
the minority question in Vojvodina. Adjustment of Vojvodina’s autonomy
to the unitarian, national state’s façade nothing but intensifies
demands for territorial, ethnic autonomies and hinders the province’s
developmental capacity, while keeping Serbia proper in the vicious
circle of nationalism.  

Serbian nationalists lack both potential and circumstance to pursue
their model of ethnic state, and primarily so because of the
international presence. However, their capacity for generating national
homogenization, chauvinistic campaigns, ethnically motivated violence
and isolationist, Greater Serbia policy is still rather unabated and
scars interethnic relations. Some institutions such as the Serbian
Orthodox Church are still focused on homogenization along ethnic lines. 

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has been continually monitoring
minority problems and regularly informing authorized national and
international institutions about its findings. The Committee has issued
a number of publications, analyses and reports on the minority question.
Besides, the Committee permanently communicates with minority
representatives, particularly in Vojvodina where it has set up a
standing forum to discuss minority problems. Because of its commitment,
the Committee itself has become a target of assaults and an object of
public lynch. However, due to its minority rights advocacy, the Helsinki
Committee enjoys minority communities’ full confidence.  

Overcoming the devastating legacy of the Serbian national project also
implies facing up the recent past  and, not only facing the atrocities
in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, but also in Serbia proper. Here I
primarily refer to the attitude towards minorities. The indictment
against Vojislav Seselj includes the counts related to the ethnic
cleansing of Croats in Vojvodina. One cannot build a sane society
without facing one’s own past with an open heart.  

The EU Council of Ministers’ decision to start the negotiations on
stabilization and association with Serbia-Montenegro is most
significant, given that the process itself fundamentally changes the
context and roles of some players at the Serbian political scene. In the
first place, this process opens the door to the civil society  in
particular, to the organizations dealing in human rights  to actively
contribute to the decomposition of the ethnic model installed 20 years
ago. Likewise, reinstatement of Vojvodina's autonomy would prevent
further territorialization of the minority question. An autonomy for
Vojvodina as a whole preconditions putting an end to the tendency of
having Vojvodina itelf territorialized, that is to a new human
engineering or humane resettlement. At the same time, that would mark a
defeat of the model the Serbs have attempted to impose as a dominant
principle for border-solution regionwide, the model they had initiated
in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. A green light to an ethnic
model in Vojvodina would only be a bad precedent not only for Vojvodina,
but also for the entire region and even Europe. 

Serbia wastes enormous energy on speculation to have Kosovo’s “stepping
out” compensated with territories in Bosnia  and, moreover, in Vojvodina
and Montenegro. When it comes to Vojvodina, it is of crucial importance
that she is invested with constitutional independence so as to be able
to solve her problems on her own, the same as other European regions do.
This is the only way for Serbia to become a functional and stable state. 
 
With a view to improving the situation of minorities in Vojvodina,
Serbia should urgently take the following steps: 

- To sign and ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority
Languages; 
- To include minorities, as her major constituent parts, into the
upcoming process of constitutional reconstruction;  
- To adopt several important laws such as the election law, the law on
national councils and the anti-discrimination law, and eliminate from
her legislation the provisions enabling discrimination; 
- To make a new constitution a warrant for a multiethnic Serbia;
- To more actively join European integration processes, as the only way
to activate minorities’ potential for development and modernization; 
- To set up a ministry of human and minority rights at the republican
level, and to pass a new republican law on minorities; 
- To arrange such autonomy for Vojvodina that will best suit the
province’s cultural, historical and economic predispositions; and 
- To contribute to the strengthening of regional ties between Vojvodina
and Croatia, Hungary and Rumania, so as to speed up the entire region’s
revitalization and economic recovery.

Last but not least, the international community should do its utmost to
utilize Vojvodina’s capacity and turn the province into the locomotive
for Serbia proper and the region’s progress. 

Brussels, October 13, 2005

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