VOJVODINA PROVINCE, YUGOSLAVIA — This is a land of pleasant living, a place where streets are safe after dark, where crops sprout from the fertile soil in abundance, and where neighbors from different ethnic groups still greet each other with smiles.
At first glance, one would hardly know it is Serbia.
But after a tumultuous decade in which Yugoslavia broke to pieces and the Serbian economy dropped to third-world levels, the times are slowly changing in the northern province of Vojvodina.
More and more, people here say, life is losing its luster. More and more, Vojvodina wants autonomy. "We're not asking for much," explains Mile Isakov, the leader of a political party in the northern city of Novi Sad and a 1997 Serbian presidential candidate. "We just want to be the bosses of our own land."
International observers fear that Vojvodina could gain inspiration from Serbia's other province, Kosovo, which was torn apart by a struggle for autonomy, and eventually become another trouble spot in the Balkans.
"We are keeping our eyes on Vojvodina, especially this autonomous strain," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade. "It may have a polarizing effect. Something radical in Vojvodina could destabilize the region."
Vojvodina, which has a 15 percent ethnic Hungarian minority and a 2 million population, is sandwiched between Croatia, Hungary, and Serbia, all of which have a history of violent nationalism. Each neighbor seems unlikely to back down from a territorial confrontation, especially since each has historical and cultural claims to Vojvodina.
Breaking Milosevic's monopoly
Mr. Isakov and other like-minded politicians in Vojvodina have been gathering momentum for years. Their platform is largely based on democratic reform and economic freedom from the centralized government of Belgrade - which they see as the best way to break Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's monopoly on power.
According to Isakov, Vojvodina, through agriculture and oil, generates more than 40 percent of the Serbian budget. But, he says, that money is gobbled up by corruption in Belgrade and rarely trickles back to its origin. (Belgrade authorities have said there is a need to redistribute the wealth to poorer parts of the country, such as Kosovo.)
The ruling class of Belgrade, which at times has advocated a "Greater Serbia," has only seen the country shrink under its domination - and it has reacted violently to what it terms "separatism."
In Montenegro, the second republic of postwar Yugoslavia (Serbia is the other), a US-backed reformist president, Milo Djukanovic, has stood in direct conflict with Belgrade. Montenegro's growing sentiment for independence has resulted in street violence and political polarization. And Kosovo may gain autonomy only after an eight-month-old war in which close to 1,000 ethnic Albanians were killed, scores of villages were set afire, and some 300,000 were forced from their homes.
Although Vojvodina is far from being another Kosovo, opinion polls taken over the past four years indicate that the Vojvodina movement has great potential to grow, with 65 percent of those questioned saying they support greater autonomy and another 15 percent favoring republic status that would make Vojvodina equal to Serbia and Montenegro.
Both Kosovo and Vojvodina were given autonomy in 1974 by the Communist leader Josip Broz Tito. And both had their autonomy taken away in a wave of Serbian nationalism led by Mr. Milosevic.
But the comparisons stop there. Vojvodina is the richest part of Serbia, Kosovo the poorest. Vojvodina was ruled for centuries by the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kosovo by the Ottoman Turks. In Vojvodina, Serbs are more than a 60 percent majority; in Kosovo, Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.
The Vojvodinian autonomy movement is led by Nenad Canak, a part-time rock 'n' roll musician who has been arrested at least twice for antiwar activities.
His plan is to encourage similar movements for greater autonomy throughout the country and eventually make Yugoslavia a federation of regions - somewhat like the United States.
Vojvodina, with its ethnic diversity and intellectualism, would be the ideal place to start, he says.
No calls for outright independence
Mr. Canak is careful to point out that he does not see autonomy as a step toward outright independence, as many ethnic Albanian in Kosovo do. But he is nevertheless labeled a "secessionist" by radical forces in Belgrade.
"We don't want independence, and we don't want to change the borders," he says. "But our supporters are afraid [that what has happened in Kosovo will happen in Vojvodina]. We can live with less money, but not in burned houses."
Canak is loosely allied with an ethnic Hungarian political party in the north of Vojvodina, near the Hungarian border. Although the Hungarians largely support Canak's vision, they also seek somewhat greater autonomy based on language and cultural rights.
According to Istvan Istvanovic, a Hungarian leader in the city of Subotica, Hungarians are underrepresented in the judiciary, education, and police systems.
"We stand for the changing of the constitutional position of Vojvodina," says Mr. Istvanovic. "But we have certain misunderstandings with [the Serbs who want autonomy for Vojvodina], because they think our concept will lead to ghettoization of the Hungarians. They don't understand our problems."
The split among the Vojvodinian autonomists, however small, could weaken the movement in the long run.
"Autonomy [for Vojvodina] is a healthy idea," says a Western diplomat. "But I don't think it will happen."