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Comment 17 Apr 13

Serbia’s Progressives Play Dangerous Games in Vojvodina

As Serbian nationalists try to re-enact the Yogurt Revolution of the late 1980s, it sounds like history replayed as farce – but it is still no laughing matter.

Dinko Gruhonjic
Novi Sad

“It was as if I had fallen asleep and suddenly woken up in 1988.” So many people in Vojvodina have said these days, recalling the so-called Yogurt Revolution, when supporters of the regime of Slobodan Milošević took to the streets of Vojvodina, after which the broad autonomy of the northern province within Yugoslavia was abolished.

What followed then was also the extinguishing of the autonomy of Kosovo - events that many believe began the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

Indeed, events on April 12 outside Banovina, the Vojvodina government building, did call to mind the hot summer days in Vojvodina of 25 years ago. 

Just like then, people were brought to Novi Sad by bus from all over Serbia. They were given packed lunches and 1,000 dinar daily allowances, yet most seemed to have no idea why they were there, although they did like Novi Sad.

There is also the fact that the state government was organising those buses. In other words, the state authorities were organising demonstrations against the regional government.

Then there was also the gruesome, inflammatory reporting by the leading media, which, in spite of the whole wave of trash journalism, tabloidisation and sensationalism, still managed to shock and remind us both of the times and the style of media reporting in the Serbia of the late Eighties and early Nineties.

It was all too reminiscent of 1988, even if few yogurts were thrown in the direction of the Banovina building. Reminiscent, but also farcical, which again proved that history only repeats itself as a farce. This, of course, doesn’t means that we will have much reason to laugh at the new “happenings of the people” and “truth rallies”, as the pro-Milosevic demonstrations in the late 1980s were called.

From the point of view of political pragmatism, one might say that the whole drama over the Draft Declaration on the Protection of Constitutional and Legal Rights of Vojvodina is a “win-win” situation for both the authorities and the opposition.

Vojvodina Prime Minister Bojan Pajtić’s decision to release the Draft Declaration on April 6, so, days before Serbia was expecting the state leadership to deliver its decisive “nyet” to the “Brussels ultimatum” on Kosovo, came as great comfort to Serbia’s ruling Progressive and Socialist parties.

They gleefully interpreted the tabling of the Declaration as an act of treason. And, although the Draft Declaration contains no mention of secessionist aims, Pajtić and his government were stigmatised as separatists and even as “Ustashas” - Croatian Fascists - because, so it was claimed, they had deliberately scheduled the debate on the Declaration for April 10, the day when the quisling Fascist Independent State of Croatia was proclaimed in 1941. [Incidentally, Serbia’s President, Tomislav Nikolić, defended the rights of Serbs convicted by the Hague Tribunal also on April 10 at the United Nations.]

All in all, the accusations were like firing a cannon at a fly, though that did not prevent the Progressives, Socialists and the other “patriotic” parties from organising their performance outside the Vojvodina government on April 12.

On the other hand, with the Draft Declaration, Pajtić has suddenly livened up. Following the Democratic Party’s election defeat last May in presidential and national elections, just like the whole of the Democratic Party, its deputy leader in Vojvodina also seemed completely lost.

He was constantly on the defensive as one blow followed another. From the Serbian Constitutional Court decision, which disputed the already humble competences of the province, to the forceful seizure of power in Novi Sad by the Progressives, to the launching of the scandal involving Razvojna Banka Vojvodine, Pajtić and his government were mainly silent and kept turning the other cheek.

For the Democrats, Pajtić’s timing in tabling the Draft Declaration was a success, and the result is new hope for the party, at least in Vojvodina. They now have something to mobilize for, now that dangerous insults and even death threats have been hurled at Pajtić and his associates.

So, perhaps the whole farce was simply a product of need and despair. The Progressives and Socialists got a bit of fresh wind before the uncertain continuation of negotiations on Kosovo while the Democrats and Pajtić finally got some energy that they can use to lubricate their rusty party engine.

The state government is, meanwhile, using the row to continue exerting pressure on the province to secure early provincial elections and thus grab power in the provincial assembly. On the other hand, the Democrats are clinging on to Vojvodina, because it is only there and in Belgrade that they have the kind of power that means anything on a wider scale.

However, when the Progressives warn that they may “no longer be able to channel and control people’s discontent”, as Igor Mirović, the deputy leader did, a line has clearly been crossed.

As it has with when the provincial authorities are linked with the Ustashas. This is when red lines have been crossed and there is practically no going back. It then no longer has to do just with Mirović or Pajtić, to whom the insults and threats were addressed, but concerns all the people who voted for exactly the kind of government that multiethnic Vojvodina has today. Bad blood has been spread, even if all talk of Vojvodina’s separatism and secessionism were to stop tomorrow.

It is almost unbelievable that, for a whole quarter of a century, politics in Serbia are still being pursued according to the principle of, “When you can’t solve one problem, create another”, and that it doesn’t seem to matter what it costs so long as they buy a few more years in power.

That is what is happening now with the story about Vojvodina. Unfortunately, we can be certain that this is just the beginning of a long and painful saga without a happy ending for the humble and in every sense of the word impoverished local citizens.

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