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Autonomy as the Antidote to Wars

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autonomy

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Between 1984 and 1986, I was a Fulbright scholar and guest lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During that time, I taught the history of Central Europe, which was already experiencing numerous unexpected developments. Among the historians and colleagues who warmly received me with interest and friendship, one stood out: Dimitrije “Mita” Đorđević, an internationally recognized Serbian historian who had emigrated from Yugoslavia a few years earlier. His ancestors were supporters of the former Obrenović dynasty, and among his friends in California were descendants of White Russians who had sought refuge in Belgrade from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. We also held a joint seminar on the ethnic conflicts of the Central European “ethnic mosaic.” 

The family history of Mita’s former soldier comrade illuminated this problem perfectly: “In the 1920s, my family’s name was Omerović. Then came the war and the Bulgarian occupation, and the authorities changed our name to Omerov. Under Tito’s rule, we became Omerovski. But you, my friend, I’ll reveal to you our true name: Omer. We are Turks.”

Certainly, not only one Hungarian family from Transcarpathia, say Tiszaújlak, was once Hungarian, Czechoslovakian after 1920, Hungarian again from 1938, Soviet from 1944, and finally Ukranian citizen since 1991. In 1991, the Yugoslav ethnic mosaic exploded, and during bloody wars, its five constituent republics became independent states. The independence aspirations of Kosovo, predominantly inhabited by Albanians, which possessed autonomy within Serbia, were hindered by Serbian President Milošević. He not only impeded their pursuit for independence but also initiated the expulsion of Albanians. In 1999, democratic countries, led by the United States and including the Orbán government, intervened militarily to prevent the “ethnic cleansing.”

Under international supervision, Kosovo essentially became an independent state. In 2008, the Albanians declared independence, which has been recognized by 93 out of 193 independent countries, including Hungary. The majority of Serbs, who make up less than 10% of the territory’s population of nearly 2 million people, live in the northern part of the country, around the city of Mitrovica. However, they still wish to remain part of Serbia.

Why does the world deny the right to self-determination for the Serbian population in Kosovo, when the self-determination of Albanians has been recognized by a part of the world?” – arises the not entirely unfounded question. What makes the debate even more intriguing is that in the southernmost part of Serbia, bordering Kosovo, there are approximately 80,000 Albanians living in the Preševo Valley. It would be logical, and all parties involved would welcome it, if the two territories exchanged ownership: Northern Kosovo would belong to Serbia, and the Preševo Valley would belong to Kosovo. Serbia might be inclined towards this solution, but the so-called “international community” rejects it, and the Albanian leadership in Kosovo is unwilling to give up the Serbian-inhabited areas.

Of course, the world fears setting a precedent where international borders would change based on self-determination, as this would open Pandora’s box and give rise to separatist movements everywhere. The demand for Catalonia’s independence would grow stronger, the Scottish National Party would demand another referendum, and some of our neighbors would frighten the world with the specter of Hungarian revisionism. The latter, due to the radically changed – and altered – ethnic relations since 1920, is an unrealistic danger or desire, considering the Hungarian minority in cities across the border. However, in the Balkans and elsewhere, such as Eastern Ukraine, it could seriously arise and trigger intense, possibly violent debates.

Let me recall that in 1991/92, during the height of the Balkan crisis and war, the possibility of border changes did indeed arise. In my book titled “An Attempt to Heal the Trianon Trauma. Hungary’s Neighborhood Policy in the Years of Regime Change,” published by Osiris Kiadó in 2016, I wrote about this.

The intervention of the Serbian armed forces put an end to Yugoslavia. It is worth paying attention to the fact that the rhetoric of the Belgrade leadership did not challenge the self-determination rights of the Croats but demanded that the approximately half-million Serbian community living in various parts of Croatia, embedded within Croatian-majority areas, should secede from the country and remain part of Yugoslavia (i.e., Greater Serbia). Accordingly, under the protection of the Yugoslav army, they established the so-called Serbian Krajinas, where the non-Serb population, including the Hungarian communities in Eastern Slavonia and Southern Baranya, became victims of systematic persecution, referred to as “ethnic cleansing,” involving killings and expulsions. Lord Carrington and the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans van den Broek, who held the rotating presidency of the European Community, proposed recognizing the seceding republics as a solution to the problem on October 18, 1991, on the condition that the minority populations living in their territories be granted extensive territorial and/or cultural autonomy, a “special status.” This proposal had already been put forward months earlier by Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gianni de Michelis.

The problem of minorities in Yugoslavia, which is the main cause of the ethnic conflicts ravaging the country, can be resolved in a similar way to how it was resolved in the Italian province of South Tyrol, where a foreign state (Austria) can oversee the protection of the rights of the German minority. By applying a similar principle in Yugoslavia, the Serbs could oversee the respect for the rights of the Serbian minority living in Croatia, and, like Austria in the case of South Tyrol, Serbia could turn to the United Nations or the OSCE if the rights of the Serbian minority were endangered. In a similar manner, Hungary could oversee the respect for the rights of the Hungarian minority living in Vojvodina, and Albania could oversee the respect for the rights of the Albanians in Kosovo.¹

The Carrington-Van den Broek plan included, alongside the special status, the possibility of mutually agreed modifications to the borders between the republics. Originally, logically, the plan applied to all minorities in Yugoslavia, including the Albanians in Kosovo and the Hungarians in Vojvodina. However, due to Belgrade’s protest, the proposal eventually limited autonomy only to the Serbs in Croatia and excluded the possibility of border changes. Hungary welcomed the proposal but pointed out that a true resolution must ensure the rights of national minorities throughout the region.²

Real autonomy works well in many parts of Western Europe, from South Tyrol to the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands belonging to Finland. However, in the eastern part of our continent, states view it as something demonic. In the current Serbian-Kosovar Albanian dispute, the only acceptable alternative to territorial exchange would be achieved autonomy in the area around Mitrovica and the Preševo Valley. In Kosovo, elected leaders would govern the lives of the Serbian minority, while in Serbia, alongside the Albanians, it would guarantee the future of the Hungarian, Slovak, and Ruthenian minorities in Vojvodina.

Thirty years ago, this seemed attainable.

_____________

¹ Almost echoing these thoughts was the statement of the opposition democrat Zoran Đinđić, who was [assassinated after the 2000 revolution]. “The only solution lies in separation. Where Serbs live as a majority, such as in Krajina, their own republic should be allowed to be established. In Slavonia and Banija, on the other hand, extensive autonomy should be introduced.” According to him, the same should apply to Croats and Hungarians living in Serbia, the Albanians in Kosovo, and certain ethnic groups living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Statement by Đinđić for the Austrian APA news agency, Magyar Szó, October 18, 1991.

² Statement by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 18, 1991. Hungarian Foreign Policy Yearbook 1991, 347-349.

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