Serbia’s court says Vojvodina’s right to make its own science decisions is unconstitutional

In what some have called a throwback to the time when strongman Slobodan Milošević was president of Serbia, the Serbian constitutional court has this month (10 July) struck down a lot of a 2009 law that had granted Vojvodina, the country’s northern region which is dominated by ethnic Hungarians rather than Serbs, autonomy over many of its affairs, such as fisheries, social care, and forestry.

This included the right to govern its own science, including funding a science academy, in a decision passed last week.

A law passed by the Serbian parliament in 2009 gave the autonomous county of Vojvodina jurisdiction over many of its own affairs, including powers over its science.

But opponents of the law, mainly coming from the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), saw it as secessionist and challenged its constitutionality with the court.

The court’s ruling came on the day several Serbian parties, lead by a Ivica Dačić, Slobodan Milošević’s former spokesperson, from Socialist Party of Serbia, which was founded in 1990 by Slobodan Milošević, agreed to form a coalition government, after nine weeks of negotiations following elections in May.

The court deemed unconstitutional a series of points across the law, including the entire section on science and technological development, which essentially gives the county the power to set and fund its own research priorities.

The article on science allows Vojvodina to use its own scientific institutions to ensure the funding of research and determine and fund new research projects of regional importance, as well as to develop its own technology development strategy, and set up new funds for high technologies, housing for researchers and boosting international cooperation. It also allows the county to set up and fund its own research institutes and innovation funds, and promote science in its territory.

Finally, the article provides funding for the Vojvodina Academy of Sciences and Arts (VANU) from the county’s budget. The academy was originally set up in 1979 in Yugoslavia, but was merged with the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts by a centralisation drive by Milošević’s regime during the Yugoslav wars in the 1992, only to be set up again as an independent academy in 2004.

The president of the DSS, Vojislav Koštunica, told Serbian national TV, RTS, that the court’s decision was “historic” because it “prevented a creation of a state within a state, and further crumbling of Serbia”.

But several other political parties and NGOs questioned the ruling and its timing, calling it a political rather than a legal decision.

“Why is it a problem if we govern the scientific and technological development of the autonomous county of Vojvodina? That is allowed to local governments – so why is it not allowed for us?” Ištvan Pastor, president of Vojvodina’s parliament, asked in a released statement. Vojvodina’s League of Social Democrats called on the county’s government to seek protection from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

A former official in the science department of Vojvodina’s government, who wished not to be named, said the decision was “political”.

Vojvodina’s governmental science department and its work in high technologies sector will be “substantially endangered” if the decision starts being implemented, he said.

The science academy has research collaborations with a range of European academies, and if its funding is cut, this will be “scandalous”, he said.

Endre Pap, president of VANU said the regional government in Vojvodina will have to react, since it is the founder of the academy.

But he was confident the academy would weather the consequences: “We financed ourselves before that law and we have our projects which are funded independently of the funding for academy”.

Mićo Tatalović

Science journalist at New Scientist
Mićo Tatalović is environment and life science news editor at New Scientist magazine. He is also the chair of the board of the Association of British Science Writers and is actively involved in promoting science journalism in South-East Europe.
He runs the EuroScientist blog Balkan Science Beat.
Mićo Tatalović

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