Ultranationalists gain toehold in northern Serbia

EU officials are concerned that a pro-Milosevic group is now the largest party in Vojvodina's parliament.

Here in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, local Serbs proudly show off their knowledge of Hungarian, the rich farmland, and the Habsburg-style buildings that separate them from the so-called "wilds" of Serbia proper just a few miles south. Many are less boastful, however, about a strain of ultranationalism emerging here.

For years, Vojvodina opposed the political ideals of former Serbian leader and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. But the Serbian Radical Party, an ultranationalist party aligned with Mr. Milosevic, has done surprisingly well in recent elections in the province and its main town of Novi Sad.

Its victories last year in Serbia proper have been linked by some here to a recent rash of ethnic violence in Vojvodina.

This year the province - which has a unique mix of Serbs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Croats, and others - has suffered more violent incidents than in the last three years combined. Minorities have been beaten and threatened, Catholic graveyards and churches have been desecrated, and antiminority graffiti has been sprayed.

Hungary's foreign minister used the word "atrocities" to describe the incidents. Last month, Hungary lobbied the European Union (EU) to address the issue. The Union called on its ambassadors in Belgrade to assess the situation.

But some local politicians say that the incidents, most of which involve young men and alcohol consumption, should not be blown out of proportion.

"We can't minimize [the incidents], but at the same time we don't want to give it that much meaning," says Emil Gion, an adviser to the head of Vojvodina's parliament. "If some guys fight in a cafe over a girl, and those guys happen to be a Hungarian, a Serb, and a Slovak, it becomes an interethnic incident."

The Radical Party is led by Vojislav Seselj, who is currently on trial for war crimes at the UN tribunal. The party backs the "Greater Serbia" ideal that led to wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.

The 2 million people here consistently opposed that vision, electing opposition politicians during the dark years of the 1990s, when Milosevic fomented wars and Serbia became a society plagued by smugglers and dubious businessmen.

In October 2000, 18 political parties led a revolution promising democracy and a new Serbia. International funds began flowing into the country.

Four years later, that revolution is seen as a failure, especially in Vojvodina. Broken promises regarding the return of Vojvodina's autonomy, which had been considerable before Milosevic revoked it, particularly rankle people here.

"Everyone thought that Serbia would become a new country, but it was chaos," says Ilija Lakobrije, a prominent Novi Sad businessman. "[The coalition] promised that laws would be passed to return some autonomy to Vojvodina. That's one of the reasons why the Vojvodina parties joined."

Vojvodina's pro-democracy voters are protesting the lack of progress by staying home at election time. Just one-third of registered voters turned out for this fall's local elections.

Radical Party voters, however - most of whom are Serb refugees of the 1990s wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo - turned out in droves. The Radicals are now the single largest party in Vojvodina's parliament.

Although the EU has determined that this year's violent incidents here have not been instigated by the authorities, they are keeping an eye on the province. What especially concerns both the EU and those who control the purse strings in Washington is that Serbia has not made a break with the past since the October 2000 revolution.

"[The radical element] are people whose whole political life depends on their position, so they're going to fight back," says an EU source in Belgrade. "This is something that's much broader than Vojvodina. It's a problem of this country not dealing with its own past."

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