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Hungarian Coat of Arms
The Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia
and Autonomous Region of Vojvodina,
and the Need for a More Coherent
U.S. Foreign Policy

Briefing presented to the Stanton Group, Washington, D.C.,
November 11, 1993

I. Faults in Western Analysis

American and Western foreign policy toward Central and Eastern Europe suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of the region's complex history. There are two primary reasons for this: (1) The study of Central and Eastern Europe in the West was tied to Soviet Studies. As a result, the conflicts within the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were seen as less important to U.S. foreign policy given the Cold War and the East-West confrontation; and (2) Central and Eastern European history is often studied in three periods, pre-World War I, the Peace Years (between the wars), and Post-World War II, rather than as a continuous process of history.

This division of history leads to poor analysis because it dismisses over a thousand years of historical development and nation building. The students of more modern Central and Eastern European affairs tend to view the region as a constant, with the countries existing after World War I and II as historical nations.

Therefore, the outbreak of the bitter ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia caught many off guard. Historically, however, many of these ethnic groups were often at odds due to differences in religion, culture, and economic and political development. It is therefore simply logical that these groups did not form a single historical nation on their own. It was Western influence that led to the formation of post World War I "nations" such as Yugoslavia. Without a correct historical analysis and thorough understanding of the region, development of a coherent and consistent U.S. foreign policy is made more difficult.

II. U.S. Policy

Following World War I and II, U.S. and Western policy makers and administrations did recognize that the new borders agreed upon in Central and Eastern Europe were far less than perfect and recommended revision. The U.S., however washed its hands of the problem and no longer pursued its recommendations. Though much has been written about the ethnic conflicts and minority problems in Central and Eastern Europe, there has been little talk about the need for a reevaluation of borders. On his visit, George Bush said that the U.S. did not support the dissolution of Yugoslavia. But four years of a Milosevic communist regime and Serbian nationalist campaign led to bloody war and the complete dissolution of Yugoslavia.

III. Roots of Conflict in Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia was created after WW I and was a complicated combination of peoples, religions, and cultures. Developed and predominantly Roman Catholic regions such as Slovenia (formerly part of the Austrian Empire) and Croatia (formerly part of Hungary) were joined with less developed and Eastern Orthodox Serbia. These regions were then joined with even more poorly developed Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Hercegovina, which all have large Muslim and Eastern Orthodox populations. To further complicate the situation, Serbian claims to parts of Southern Hungary (Vojvodina) were also granted and incorporated into this new country. After World War II, the nationalities of Yugoslavia sought more autonomy from Belgrade. Yugoslavia was then divided into 6 republics and 2 provinces with a collective, Federal Presidency. Each republic and province had a president and representation in a Federal Assembly.

IV. The Nationalist Campaign

In 1986, with the ascension of the Milosevic regime, Serbian media were placed under state control. Milosevic, as President of the Communist Party, replaced prominent government officials with his supporters. The new state media started a nationalist propaganda machine to intimidate other Serbs into supporting the new regime and its policies. One method of gaining Serb support was through the spread of unwarranted fear of non-Serbian minorities. Unfair housing and other practices against Serbs and favoring Albanians in Kosovo were used by Belgrade to support claims of a larger and unfounded conspiracy: Croats in Croatia wanted to kick Serbs out of their homes and Hungarians in Vojvodina wanted to secede and again become part of Hungary.

The Milosevic regime wanted a much tighter Yugoslav federation controlled by Belgrade. One way to gain control of any assembly or voting body is to control its votes. Belgrade turned to a more deliberate scheme to consolidate its power and control and first focused its attention on the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.


In 1988, Belgrade planned and staged series of mass demonstrations in Vojvodina, culminating in a 200,000 strong demonstration in Novi Sad (Ujvidék) in front of the Provincial Assembly in which Serbs from Kosovo were brought in to denounce the largely anti-Milosevic Provincial Assembly. On October 6, 1988, under enormous pressure and intimidation, the provincial leadership collectively resigned their positions, Serbs, Croats, and Hungarians alike, rather than call out the police to disperse the crowds and risk bloody confrontation. State propaganda succeeded in convincing Vojvodina Serbs to elect pro-Milosevic Serbs to a new Provincial Assembly. The new provincial government soon fired all editors and senior officials of television, newspapers, and radio. Belgrade's efforts were extremely successful. By 1989, any real autonomy was eliminated in Vojvodina. Milosevic was now able to focus on Montenegro and Kosovo. See Szabadka or (Subotica in Serbian) for a virtual tour of this beautiful town in the Vajdasŕg.

Montenegro and Kosovo

Belgrade followed the same formula in the Republic of Montenegro. Here, the Montenegrin Assembly first used police to disperse the demonstrators. Belgrade and the state media harshly criticized the action and demonstrations continued. The Assembly eventually gave in to the pressure, and the provincial leadership resigned. A similar, but more drastic action took place in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo. The Serbian Assembly in Belgrade, in direct violation of the federal constitution, abolished the Kosovo Provincial Assembly, refused to meet with Assembly representatives, and used force to prevent its reorganization. Again, autonomy was lost.


The same scheme was attempted in Slovenia. Slovenians, however, were not caught unaware. Slovenia used its police to seal its borders and turned back all Serbs. This policy successfully prevented any planned demonstrations. In December 1990, Slovenia held a national referendum on independence that yielded an interesting outcome. Slovenes did not vote for outright independence, but rather for a resolution of the impasse with Belgrade and perhaps the creation of a looser federation. The Slovene action prompted 6 months of intense negotiations. Milosevic would not concede. After his actions in Vojvodina, Kosovo, and Montenegro, he now controlled four votes (50%) in the Federal Presidency and a majority in the Federal Assembly and used these votes to prevent any reorganization of the republic. He set the stage for a bloody tragedy.

Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina

Croatia saw that negotiation was futile and also declared independence. Belgrade refused to accept this declaration; war soon followed. Serbia still occupies parts of Croatia. Bosnia-Hercegovina, patient throughout the Serb-Croat war, also found that it could not gain independence without bloodshed. The Bush and Clinton administrations both sent mixed signals as to what our role would become should the Serbs continue their aggressive policies. We talked tough and did nothing. This waffling and policy of noninterference may have emboldened the Serbs to resist the dissolution of Yugoslavia by any means they felt necessary, including force. This may also serve to encourage further Serbian aggression and the pursuit of similar positions by other nations with similar ethnic frictions.

V. Roots of Conflict in Vojvodina

The Western media have virtually ignored the region of Vojvodina. Here, however, the stakes are the highest for the United States. As discussed earlier, Vojvodina is a formerly autonomous region situated on the borders of Southeastern Hungary, the Northeastern tip of Croatia, Southwestern Rumania, and Northern Serbia. After forcing changes in 1989 and 1990 to the Vojvodina constitution, Serbia declared a new two-member Federation of Yugoslavia that included Serbian-controlled Montenegro in 1992. They then adopted a new federal constitution that further weakened the provincial governments and took away the Vojvodina Provincial Assembly's power to make laws or levy taxes. The provincial government is now reliant on Belgrade for all revenues. Vojvodina is also without a provincial constitution.

VI. The Treaty of Trianon

Vojvodina (Vajdaság in Hungarian) was granted to Yugoslavia with the signing of the Treaty of Trianon following World War I. The signing of this treaty cost Hungary two-thirds (2/3) of her land and one third (1/3) of her Hungarian-speaking population who now live outside the present borders. Not even Germany, which lost only small amounts of territory, was "punished" to this extent. The Treaty of Trianon, by any objective account, was extremely harsh and unprecedented. It is the reason Hungarians today are the largest minority in Europe, numbering in the millions and face discrimination, persecution, and destruction of their ethnic identity (See the report, "Destroying Ethnic Identity," by the Helsinki Watch Committee, February 1989).

Serbian Claims

Serbian evasive maneuvering is not new. It has been argued that because Yugoslavia, a signatory of the Treaty of Trianon, no longer exists, the entire validity of the treaty comes into question as do Serb claims to Vojvodina. Serbian claims to Vojvodina, however, date from a national assembly on November 25, 1918 in which participants voted that Vojvodina, then under Serbian military occupation, should become part of Serbia. Serbians claim that because this vote made Vojvodina a part of Serbia before the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, it is therefore a part of Serbia proper. Therefore, the Treaty of Trianon and the dissolution of Yugoslavia are of no consequence. What is purposefully left out of this equation is that through World War I, Hungarians made up 40.5% of the population, ethnic Germans 27.5% and Serbians only 19%. The "national" assembly that voted to cede Vojvodina to Serbia was made up of 578 Serbs, 6 Germans, 2 Croats, and 1 Hungarian.

VII. Ethnic Cleansing

Little has been written about the "quiet" ethnic cleansing taking place in Vojvodina. The Serbians have been very successful in keeping their actions quiet because most in the West, especially the media, show a profound lack of understanding of and interest in the situation. It is as if this region and this potentially explosive problem do not exist. When the media, for example, show maps of the region in print or on television, they clearly show the borders of other former provinces and republics, but in most cases neglect to show the borders of Vojvodina, which happens to be also on the border of Bosnia.

The Treaty of Trianon stipulated that minorities and their institutions beprotected, such as schools and their school boards, native language instruction, churches, and the press. The Serbian government, however, has been replacing previously elected school board members of Hungarian, Croat, or other ethnic descent with Serbs, and is thus able to alter curriculum and language instruction.

There are a few remaining free and independent newspapers in "Greater Serbia." There are still a few surviving in Vojvodina and are Hungarian operated. While not being openly shut down, which could shift Western attention to this region, they cannot purchase newsprint because Serbian producers refuse or are instructed not to sell to these news organizations. The tense border situation has made it very difficult to purchase and import goods from across the border.

The mass exodus of Hungarian and Croat refugees into Hungary and Croatia meant that these people, opponents to Serbian government policies, were not able to vote in the elections of December 19, 1993. As a result, Milosevic further increased his power and legislative majority. The number of Hungarians living in this region today is disputed. However, most conservative sources place the figure at around 350,000 and rapidly decreasing. In the Serbian occupied regions of Croatia, 90% of the Hungarian population has been expelled.

VIII. U.S. Interests and Humanitarian Appeal

There has been much attention given to the bloody ethnic and national conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. This conflict, however, is a local and relatively small part of a more "global" regional conflict that is continuing to develop and may easily accelerate to a full scale international war. Already, concerns over Albanians in Kosovo, Greeks in Macedonia, and Muslims in Bosnia have led some to worry about the possible escalation of the conflict to involve the countries that neighbor Serbia or those countries that have interests in protecting whom they consider to be their "own" beyond their borders.

U.S. economic interests are at stake as well. Half of all new Western investment in Central and Eastern Europe is taking place in Hungary. The United States is the largest total investor, owning over 50% of the investment in Hungary.

Though some troops have been stationed in Bosnia and Macedonia, the West's emphasis on peace in Bosnia while ignoring other developments is a dangerous tendency that could leave us unprepared should the conflict escalate. If this "quiet" ethnic cleansing in Vojvodina continues or becomes more overt and perhaps bloody, will the Hungarian government intervene? If they decide to intervene, will they ally themselves with the Croatians? Will Slovakia, which was part of Northern Hungary and with a large Hungarian minority and where some radical leaders have expressed further designs on additional Hungarian territory, take the opportunity to attack Hungary while she is involved in a war on her Southern frontier? Will the Rumanians, where some also claim additional Hungarian territory, then also attack both Hungary and the Hungarians of Transylvania to "cleanse" that region? Who else would get involved? Of course, instability in the former Soviet Union further complicates the situation.

The suffering in this conflict is universal, affecting the parents and children of all nationalities in former Yugoslavia. But there is hope. Many Serbs do not agree with Serb government policies, and there is a growing peace movement in Serbia. Aggressors will be less likely to act if they know we are aware, watching, and prepared. We must develop a coherent policy based on a comprehensive and correct understanding of the issues.

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