Even before the bombing, the Caucasus was already a popular topic among security, human rights, and foreign policy geeks thanks to its violent recent history, the geopolitics of Russian oil and gas pipelines, and a growing list of awkward questions about next year's Olympic Games in Sochi. But fifteen hundred miles due west of Chechnya is someplace else with no vital resources and no history of warfare since the Second World War, leaving it even more unfamiliar among a general American audience than the Caucasus was until April of 2013. Several different dramas have held the world's attention over the last few weeks, including Boston, Syria, North Korea, and even West, Texas. While almost no one was looking, an unexploded bomb left over from the Yugoslav Wars may have begun to tick in the geographic center of Europe.
Now that the other five ex-Yugoslav republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Montenegro—and one of Serbia' two autonomous provinces, Kosovo, are all independent countries, Serbia's last inheritance from the Yugoslav era is its other autonomous province, Vojvodina (voy-VOH-dee-nuh). With nearly two million people on a chunk of real estate comparable in size to Massachusetts or El Salvador, Vojvodina accounts for almost exactly a quarter of both the land and the people of Serbia. Sitting one hundred miles north of Kosovo at the confluence of the Danube, Tisa, and Sava rivers, its table-top plains are a verdant Central European contrast to the hills and valleys of the Serbian heartland and the windy Balkan highlands of Kosovo. Vojvodina is mostly farmland and is often described as Serbia's breadbasket, but it also includes the northern suburbs of Belgrade, Serbia's capital. Vojvodina's own capital and largest city, the Danube port of Novi Sad, is also Serbia's second-largest city.
Before briefly explaining its history and demography, it must first be said that the crisis unfolding in Vojvodina today is rooted in the conflicting agendas of rival political parties and, in no small part, the competing egos of their leaders. If ethnic diversity is a certain guarantee of trouble in the Balkans, then surely Vojvodina would have been among the first places to explode in the early Nineties. Instead, when the regime of Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević neutered Vojvodina's autonomy in September of 1990, the reaction was far more hostile in places as far afield as Slovenia and Croatia than in Vojvodina itself.
That said, Yugoslavia was destroyed by political opportunists like Serbia's Milošević and his Croatian counterpart Franjo Tuđman who showed no scruples about exploiting the worst impulses of local bigotries to fill the political void left by the breakdown of communism. By ending the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina, Milosevic firmed up his control over Serbia at the cost (deemed acceptable to him) of driving the other Yugoslav republics to abandon the federation. To use a phrase with heavy portent in Central Europe, the same thing could happen again two decades later.
Vojvodina is a surviving relic of the dazzling diversity that was once typical of Central Europe. Whole communities like the local Germans and Jews were swept away by twentieth-century catastrophes, but Vojvodina is still far more diverse than the rest of Serbia. Ethnic Serbs account for almost exactly two-thirds of its population, compared to a solid nine-tenths majority in the Serbian heartland. Ethnic Hungarians form the next largest group at about 13%, mostly clustered in the far north of the province along the Hungarian border around Vojvodina's second-largest city, Subotica. The last one-fifth of Vojvodina's people are a kaleidoscope of different Central and East European communities, with Slovaks, Croats, Roma (the people once better known as Gypsies in the West), Romanians, and Montenegrins each accounting for at least one or two percent of the population apiece, plus more than a dozen other communities accounting for a least a few hundred people each. These smaller categories include familiar nationalities like Ukrainians, Macedonians, and Albanians but also stateless groups like the Bunjevci (a Roman Catholic South Slav people speaking yet another dialect of Serbo-Croatian), the Rusyn (an Eastern Catholic people whose East Slav language is similar to Russian and Ukrainian), and the Gorani (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims). Even the more familiar groups are often marked in Vojvodina by local distinctions; Slovakia itself is a devoutly Roman Catholic country, but the fifty thousand Slovaks who make up 2.6% of Vojvodina's people are mostly Evangelical Protestants whose ancestors left their homeland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in search of both prosperity and religious freedom. Modern Vojvodina has a total of six official languages: Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, and Rusyn.
It is only fair that such a diverse people should have a long and complicated history. This land belonged to the Hungarian nation for most of the last thousand years, but its people have always been a mix of languages, religions, and identities. Serbs have lived here since the Middle Ages and became dominant after a huge influx of Serb refugees fleeing Ottoman Turkish rule further south in the late 1600s. Over the next century, as the Ottoman Empire peaked and then decayed, these northern Serbian lands straddling what is now Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia itself became a broad military frontier between the predominantly Roman Catholic empire of Austria to the north and the Muslim-dominated empire of the Ottomans in the south. This sense of being the front line of European Christendom in an eternal war against Asiatic Islam became an ingrained central theme in the Serbian national identity and endures to this day, notwithstanding the awkward fact that their modern neighbors (in both the national and personal senses) include millions of people who are simultaneously Europeans and Muslims.
Hungarian rule lingered here even after the Serbian heartland won its independence from the Ottomans in gradual stages over the 1800s. By then, Hungary was a core territory of the vast and multicultural Austrian Empire, and a Hungarian revolt in 1848-49 was crushed thanks in part to the loyalty of Serb subjects whose anxiety over the prospects of direct rule by an independent Hungary trumped any resentment of comparatively remote Austrian rule. The result was an orgy of fighting between Hungarians and Serbs, including hideous crimes against civilian noncombatants on both sides. The entire city of Novi Sad was destroyed in the uprising, and virtually none of its modern buildings predate 1848 even though the city itself was founded exactly one hundred years earlier (its original Austrian name was Ratzenstadt, "Serb City" in German). The uprising's legacy still casts a shadow over relations between the two peoples almost two centuries later. Austria rewarded southern Hungary's Serbs for their loyalty by creating a new autonomous region called the Serbian Duchy or, in Serbian, Srpska Vojvodina.
It took less than twenty years for Hungary to seize another chance to defy Austria. In 1867 (the same year that the last Turkish troops left Serbia after five centuries of occupation), Austria suffered a crushing defeat in the series of wars that birthed modern Germany. Hungary forced the Austrians to preserve their tottering empire at the cost of transforming it into a new nation: the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Having fought so long and so valiantly for its own self-rule under Austrian domination, Hungary in the late nineteenth century turned full circle and adopted one of the most repressive and nationalistic of all European regimes of its time. Now an equal partner in the empire it had once resisted, the government of Hungary crushed any expression of distinct identity among the Slovaks, Croats, Romanians, Serbs, and other non-Hungarians who comprised half of its people. This would become part of a toxic legacy that exploded half a century later in the First World War, destroying both the old European order in general and the sprawling Kingdom of Hungary in particular.
The entire map of Central and Eastern Europe was rebooted at the end of the First World War as empires on both sides buckled under the weight of four years of war on top of their own internal flaws and collapsed, Hungary among them. The eastern half of Vojvodina briefly joined a neighboring Austro-Hungarian province to form the Banat Republic, but this entity basically existed only on paper for a few weeks in November of 1918 before it was invaded and carved up by two of the war's victorious allies, Serbia and Romania. To the south, Serbia itself became the core of a new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, soon renamed as "the land of the South Slavs", Yugoslavia. A Serb-backed anti-Hungarian regime in Vojvodina announced its intent to join the new nation in December of 1918, and the allies formally endorsed the new state of affairs the following year.
All of the defeated Central Powers suffered painful terms of surrender at the Paris Peace Talks in 1919, most infamous today for the treaty imposed upon Germany at Versailles, but the losses for Germany in both land and people were far smaller on a per capita basis compared to what Hungary lost in the Treaty of Trianon. Two-thirds of its land and its people were awarded to neighboring countries, leaving behind only a shrunken core of the Hungarian heartland around the capital city Budapest. Inevitably, politics in both Hungary and Germany fell victim to the curse of irredentism, the desire of defeated nations to reverse history and redraw their national boundaries to return lost territories and perhaps even gain new lands from their enemies as compensation. The Nazis exploited German irredentism to deadly effect, but undoing Trianon became a kind of national religion in Hungary during the Twenties and Thirties. As Germany under the Nazis rearmed and demanded a reversal of the First World War's consequences, few other nations supported Hitler's foreign policy with greater enthusiasm than Hungary's own dictator, Admiral Miklos Horthy (in stark contrast to Horthy's resistance to the Final Solution on the domestic front). All of Hungary's neighbors had benefited from Trianon, and most of the lost territories had large local ethnic Hungarian minorities and even local majorities in places like northern Vojvodina. All such regions became lightning rods for Hungarian irredentism, which pushed the country into a suicidal alliance with Nazi Germany.
Vojvodina endured two consecutive genocidal catastrophes in the 1940s. The original Yugoslavia, the Serb-led kingdom created after the First World War, was attacked and destroyed in 1941 by Nazi Germany and its fascist partners. Most of Vojvodina was partitioned between Hungary and Croatia during the Second World War, with only the southeastern part left under the jurisdiction of the German-occupied remnant of Serbia. It is estimated that the fascist occupation from 1941 to 1944 killed fifty thousand of Vojvodina's people, including almost all of its Jewish residents and thousands of Serbs and Roma. Many of these people were killed at Jasenovac in Croatia, the only Auschwitz-style fascist extermination camp not under direct German administration. The end of the war and the defeat of fascism brought a new wave of violence as the new communist regime attacked its own enemies. An estimated 200,000 people from one of Vojvodina's largest and oldest ethnic communities, the local Germans, were exiled to Germany, while more than forty thousand others were sent to prison camps where thousands died of abuse or neglect. The communists also killed tens of thousands of Serbs, Hungarians, and others in Vojvodina deemed hostile to the new regime.
Vojvodina's modern boundaries were set at the end of the Second World War when the communists under Marshal Tito created the second version of Yugoslavia, a communist federation of six republics and two provinces, but its specific legal status has changed several times since then. The province was originally under almost total control by the republic of Serbia, but a new Yugoslav constitution in 1974 made Vojvodina comparable to a republic, complete with a veto in the unwieldy collegiate presidency that ruled communist Yugoslavia during its final stage. When Milosevic ended this autonomy and imposed total Serbian control in 1990, Vojvodina itself accepted the change with little resistance even as the rest of Yugoslavia reacted with fear, rage, and a renewed determination to seek independence.
Vojvodina escaped the worst of the violence in the early 90s, but local Croats became targets of suspicion and prejudice during Croatia's war of independence from Yugoslavia and the subsequent war of secession by Croatia's own Serb-majority regions. As many as ten thousand Vojvodina Croats fled the province during 1992, mostly from villages in the southwest near the Croatian border. The most infamous incident involved the ethnically mixed village of Hrtkovci where a campaign of harassment was led by Vojislav Šešelj, leader of both Serbia's ultranationalist Radical Party and the Chetnik paramilitary squads who committed atrocities against Croatian and Bosnian civilians during the Yugoslav Wars. Bloodshed was minimal, including one confirmed murder, but more than seven hundred Croats left Hrtkovci under the immediate threat of deadly violence, leaving their homes to be occupied by Serb refugees from other parts of Yugoslavia. Even so, their were conspicuous incidents of bravery in which ethnic Serbs risked their lives defending Croat neighbors, and some of the instigators were later imprisoned (including Šešelj himself, who is now on trial for war crimes).
The fall of the Milošević regime in 2000 began Serbia's slow but inexorable transformation into a multi-party democracy governed by rule of law, and part of this process was the gradual return of Vojvodina's lost autonomy. Its current political structure dates to a 2008 reform that created a local chief executive, the Government of Vojvodina, led by a President and four Vice-Presidents, along with a single-chamber local legislature, the Assembly, headed by the President of the Assembly (usually referred to simply as Speaker as in most other parliamentary systems). The political landscape in Vojvodina today is a mix of parties with national profiles across all of Serbia—the center-left Democrats (DS), the rightist Progressives (SPS), the ultranationalist Radicals (SRS), and others—and smaller regional parties, many of them ethnic-specific like the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM).
May of 2012 saw Vojvodina's second parliamentary vote since the current structures were created in 2008. A bloc of centrist pro-EU parties led by DS lost the Serbian national elections but took first place in Vojvodina and formed the new government in coalition with a regional party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV). Their chief rivals, an SPS-led center-right coalition, won the national election but came in second place in Vojvodina. The result was a mirror-image of the election results in Serbia as a whole, where SPS leader Tomislav Nikolić took office as President of Serbia while DS second-in-command Bojan Pajtić became President of the Government of Vojvodina. The highest ranking non-Serb in local politics is Speaker István Pásztor from the SVM.
The current political crisis has been building for weeks and began, as such things often do, with a dispute over money. In March of 2013, police arrested three former officials from a local bank on suspicion of pocketing twenty-five million euros of the bank's money. A few weeks later in early April, this regional bank was seized by a national Serbian bank. What could have been a mere jurisdictional squabble automatically became more politicized simply because the provincial and national governments were controlled by each other's arch-rivals.
But one thing kept this from becoming a headline-dominating crisis in itself: Serbia was already completely engrossed in its internal debate over the Western-backed agreement on mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosovo. Very briefly, Serbia remains committed to joining the European Union and otherwise becoming a "normal" European democracy, but the EU has made it clear that any progress on Serbia's part is preconditioned on reaching a deal on normal diplomatic relations with Kosovo. That's fine, except that "normal diplomatic relations" pretty much carry the condition of recognizing Kosovo as an independent country, something that is still inconceivable to a large and vocal minority of Serbs. This situation was especially awkward for Serbia's President Nikolić, who had only just won the presidency in May of 2012 after defeating a DS incumbent who was lambasted by Nikolić's party as too soft on Kosovo and too willing to bend to EU pressure. Even so, a lengthy and often frustrating final series of negotiations began between the two states in October of 2012, starting with a groundbreaking meeting between both countries' prime ministers. After months of slow but steady progress, Nikolić announced on March 11, 2013, that a final deal was imminent.
Maybe Pajtić assumed that now, with everyone preoccupied with the Kosovo deal, the time was right to push back on the banking issue with a political move that might otherwise stir controversy. If this was his assumption, he may have miscalculated.
On April 6, Pajtić announced a "declaration on the protection of the constitutional and legal rights of Vojvodina." Pajtić's political rivals in the SNS cast the announcement as something close to a trial run at a declaration of independence from Serbia. Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister and leader of Pajtić's rightist SNS rivals, said that his party respected the province's autonomy but would not allow "separatist games" and organized an April 12 anti-secession rally in Novi Sad. The rally was held under the slogan "Stop the breaking up of Serbia" and drew heavy support from the SNS and a smattering of other national and regional parties from across the political spectrum. Pajtić denied that he wanted Vojvodina to seek independence but accused national authorities of trying to bring down his government "at any price." Also, the SNS insists that the vast majority of the rally's roughly 30,000 participants were actual Vojvodina residents, while a senior DS member said that most were shipped in from other parts of Serbia. DS and its coalition partners in LSV made a joint statement on April 22 denying any "trace of separatism" in the declaration on Vojvodina's rights. So emotionally loaded is the situation that the SNS even pointed out that the announcement coincided with the infamous anniversary of the wartime Croatian fascist state's 1941 declaration of independence from the old royalist Yugoslavia.
No single incident related to the rally roused more attention than the appearance of graffiti in various parts of Novi Sad threatening death to Vučić and warning Serbs in general and the SNS in particular to leave Vojvodina. The graffiti was written in neither Serbian nor Hungarian but rather in Albanian, a language indigenous to fewer than 2,300 people in Vojvodina or about one-eighth of one percent of its population. This provoked accusations that the graffiti had been written not by Albanians or any other ethnic minority, but rather by Serb provocateurs in general and possibly by SNS supporters in particular.
For good or ill, the Kosovo deal continues to bleed tension away from Vojvodina. Serbia and Kosovo announced mutual support for the deal on April 19, and attention has since shifted the Herculean task of convincing tens of thousands of Serbs in autonomous North Kosovo to accept the deal, which includes allowing their territory to come under the rule of the Kosovar government in three stages. For their part, the North Kosovo Serbs insist that the deal be at least held to the minimum standard of a popular referendum, a position which the government in Belgrade describes as "pointless" given the certainty of its defeat.
One other point worth briefly mentioning is the political situation north of the border in Hungary itself. One of the first East Bloc countries to jettison communism in 1989, Hungary has ranked as a confident democracy and a well-developed market economy since early in the Nineties. But its high global standing has taken an unexpected jolt over the last three years under the leadership of current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This relatively young politician is already a veteran of Hungarian politics, having co-founded the Alliance of Young Democrats, known in Hungary by the abbreviation Fidesz, during the implosion of communism. Orbán remained broadly respected abroad for his role in the fall of communism through his first tenure as prime minister around the turn of the millennium and a subsequent decade spent in opposition. But even then he established a political image that The Economist described as a mix of "cynical populism and mystifyingly authoritarian socialist-style policies."
Orbán has been prime minister again since 2010 when a rightist coalition led by Fidesz won two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament, a supermajority giving them the ability to pass an entirely new national constitution which has already been amended four times. Domestic and foreign critics alike have accused Fidesz of undermining basic democratic institutions. Among other things, Hungary's Constitutional Court finds itself in the ironic position of no longer having the authority to examine and amend the national constitution. Any law backed by the current government is, for all practical purposes, impossible to block from passage. Other odd legislative flourishes under Orbán include a law limiting election campaigning to state media outlets only and restrictions that keep university students stuck in Hungary for a minimum of three years after graduation if they ever took state aid. The bulk of the criticism has focused on the fourth amendment, actually a fifteen-page bundle of multiple amendments that sweeps away restrictions on government power and promptly triggered alarms across Europe.
Orbán's populism is hardly at the fringe of Hungarian politics. That distinction belongs to the ultranationalist party Jobbik whose virulent antisemitism and open nostalgia for fascism have made them international pariahs, notwithstanding their current third-place rank in the Hungarian parliament. And transcending any left-right distinction is the long memory of the lands lost in the treaty of Trianon nearly a century ago. Even liberal politicians routinely voice their concerns over the large and potentially vulnerable Hungarian minorities in southern Slovakia, Romanian Transylvania, and of course in Vojvodina. Genuine or not, the anti-Serb graffiti incident from mid-April seems to have blown over, but it raises the possibility of even localized inter-ethnic violence in Vojvodina. If local Hungarians should come under threat, sympathy in Hungary will resonate far beyond the nationalist extreme right, and public opinion will obligate almost any government to respond. With any luck, such a response would be limited to diplomatic and humanitarian activity.
In closing, there is near-universal consensus among Balkan-watchers that two other regions in southern Serbia are far more likely to flare up as flashpoints than Vojvodina. Perhaps critically, neither of these regions has any political autonomy now or during the Yugoslav era. Due east of Kosovo in the Preševo Valley of southernmost Serbia are a handful of noncontiguous villages and towns with large ethnic Albanian communities. These waged their own intermittent but violent insurgency after the Kosovo War with the goal of joining a "Greater Kosovo" until 2001 when NATO and their own co-ethnics in Albania and Kosovo made it bluntly clear that any further changes to local borders were off-limits. Further west, the border between Serbia and Montenegro straddles the historic region of Sandžak whose people are a near-equal mix of ordinary Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks. Both of these regions are in particularly dire economic straits, and the chances of serious unrest in either is probably partially defused by the fact that young people are leaving the regions in droves in search of better opportunities elsewhere. None of this is true of Vojvodina which, while relatively poor, still has a stable population base.
Vojvodina, still far from a tipping point, is nonetheless worthy of more attention. With Hungary's government weathering a storm of foreign and domestic criticism, Serbia's government struggling to convince a heartsick country to accept its cherished national cradle as an independent country, and all of Europe seeing a disturbing resurgence of far-right nationalist parties like Golden Dawn in Greece and Svoboda in Ukraine, regional tension is nothing unusual in the broad sweep of Vojvodina's history. One conspicuous difference this time is that, unlike 1941 or 1991, the world's attention is already monopolized by other catastrophes far from Central Europe.