Central Europe On Line

Party Seeks Economic Sovereignty For North Serbia

NOVI SAD, Yugoslavia, Nov 4, 1999 -- (Reuters) A regional opposition leader said on Wednesday he would ask Serbia's parliament next week to let the northern Vojvodina province hold a referendum on economic sovereignty.

The announcement by Dragan Veselinov of the Vojvodina coalition came a day after the Western-leaning Yugoslav republic of Montenegro moved towards greater economic independence from Belgrade by legalising the German mark.

Veselinov, whose coalition has three deputies in the 250-seat Serbian parliament and is also relatively small in the regional Vojvodina assembly, welcomed Montenegro's move, saying it would encourage Vojvodina's citizens.

Montenegrin officials say legalizing the mark is not a step towards independence, but Veselinov said it effectively meant the end of the federal Yugoslav state, which consists of Serbia and Montenegro. Vojvodina, like Kosovo, is a Serbian province.

"Vojvodina must break away economically from the Belgrade regime," Veselinov told a news conference in Vojvodina's capital Novi Sad.

"Economic sovereignty is Vojvodina's historic interest."

It was unclear whether other opposition parties in the province would back the coalition's position.

Any such request, however, appears highly unlikely to win much support in the Serbian parliament as it is dominated by the ruling coalition of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who removed Vojvodina's autonomy in 1989.

The parliament holds its first session in more than three months in Belgrade on November 9.

Many Vojvodina residents have long felt that too much of the province's wealth is swallowed up by Belgrade.

"We do not condemn the secessionist mood of Vojvodina's citizens as our fields, oil refineries and capital assets are being robbed on a daily basis," Veselinov said.

About 16 percent of Vojvodina's population - or 300,000 people - is ethnic Hungarian, a legacy of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Budapest supports autonomy for the region, but not independence.