index  |  next>>

Executive Summary

Since the end of 2003, there has been increasing violence in the province of Vojvodina and in other parts of Serbia directed at ethnic, national and religious minorities. In March 2004, Serb ultra-nationalists reacted angrily to news of anti-Serb violence in the mainly Albanian-populated province of Kosovo, subjecting ethnic Albanians, Muslims, and Roma to several particularly violent attacks. Attacks on ethnic Hungarians and Croats have been widely reported and for the first time in many years, ethnic Slovaks and Ruthenians in Vojvodina have been the targets of intimidation and violence. While there is no evidence of state involvement in the violence, political and community representatives of ethnic Hungarians and Croats in Vojvodina have accused the Serbian government of failing to acknowledge the seriousness of the incidents, take action to prevent such violence, or properly to punish the perpetrators.

Nor has the Serbian government responded to concerns expressed from outside the country. Governments in neighboring Hungary and Croatia have spoken out against the violence. In September 2004, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on harassment of minorities in Vojvodina, calling on the Serbian authorities to prevent the incidents and bring those responsible to justice.1 In August 2004, fourteen members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on the Serbian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators.2 The Assembly adopted a resolution in October 2004 urging that the Serbian authorities properly investigate and sanction any ethnically motivated incidents in the province.3

Human Rights Watch has carried out extensive research into the allegations of ethnic violence in Vojvodina and other parts of Serbia reported since the end of 2003. The research indicates that there is cause for serious concern. Ethnic Albanians and Roma, as well as religious Muslims and minority non-Orthodox Christians, are the most vulnerable groups in Serbia today. The attacks on those communities in March 2004 and afterward were among the worst incidents of violence in Serbia in recent years.

On March 17, 2004, and in the days that followed the ethnic violence, the police in Novi Sad made little effort to protect vulnerable sites, including an Islamic center and minority-owned businesses. The authorities also failed to aggressively prosecute the perpetrators of the violence, relying on administrative proceedings for “indecent, impudent, and unscrupulous behavior” rather than criminal charges. In spite of the evident ethnic motivation behind the attacks, there have been no prosecutions on the grounds of incitement to ethnic, racial or religious hatred.

In Serbia’s capital Belgrade, and in the second biggest city, Nis, mobs set mosques on fire. The police in both cities were unable or unwilling to contain the violence.  As in Vojvodina, there have been no prosecutions for incitement to ethnic, racial or religious hatred for the arson attacks, and there have been only a handful of criminal prosecutions in connection with the incidents.

The weak reaction of the Serbian government to the March 2004 attacks has served to encourage Serb ultra-nationalists. The vulnerability of the Albanians and Muslims in Vojvodina – and, indeed, in the whole of Serbia – is all the more alarming when one considers the real risk of further violence in Serbia against those communities should the situation in Kosovo deteriorate. Also of concern are incidents targeting ethnic Hungarians, Croats, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Jews, as well as members of non-Orthodox Christian communities.

The incidents described in this report may appear less than dramatic when compared to the violent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia during the previous decade. The incidents nonetheless demand urgent attention. The current low-level violence, if not curbed, has the potential to result in the escalation of violence and a further deterioration of inter-ethnic relations.

Analysis of the government’s response to anti-minority violence in Serbia since 2003 indicates that the authorities have failed to take the phenomenon seriously. Rather than tackle the problem head-on, the authorities have sought to minimize it. While some incidents with alleged ethnic motivation were later established to have taken place for reasons unrelated to ethnicity, authorities have been quick to deny ethnic motivation even before any meaningful investigation into the incidents was completed. The failure of the government to take these incidents seriously alienates minority communities and heightens fears in those communities that the government will not provide protection should there be a future outbreak of violence.

Serbian criminal law does not encompass so-called hate crimes, offenses for which the perpetrator receives a higher maximum sentence because the act is motivated by ethnic, religious, or racial animus. But the absence of hate crimes legislation cannot explain why there have been so few prosecutions against alleged perpetrators of ethnic violence for regular public order offenses.

The Serbian legislation criminalizing the incitement of ethnic, national or religious hatred is rarely used. Instead, incidents of violence against minorities are often dealt with by misdemeanor judges, rather than by the criminal courts. These administrative proceedings–which lie outside the judicial branch of government–penalize offenders for less serious conduct such as “disruption of public peace and order” or “indecent, impudent, and unscrupulous behavior.” Where wrongdoing is established, the penalties are light–for example, fines usually do not exceed the equivalent of U.S. $20 and time in detention is limited to ten days imprisonment.

Human Rights Watch has no evidence to suggest that the Serbian government has in any way instructed the police, prosecutors or the judiciary to be lenient toward the perpetrators of nationalistic violence. In a society marred by widespread ultra-nationalism, the failure of the police and the prosecutors to prosecute persons involved in ethnically motivated crimes to the fullest extent of the law may simply reflect social conformism, at least with respect to alleged ethnic Serb perpetrators. But ambiguities about the authorities’ intent should not obscure the serious impact of these offenses.

Regardless of the reasons behind the current practices, Serbia’s approach to ethnically motivated crimes needs to change. One practical step would be to legislate new hate crimes offenses, as a way of signaling a new determination to tackle attacks on minorities. Serbia cannot hope to make any progress toward integration into the European Union as long as it effectively absolves itself of responsibility for repeated violence against ethnic and religious minorities in its territory.

[1] European Parliament Resolution on harassment of minorities in Vojvodina, September 16, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 30, 2005).

[2] Motion for a recommendation [to the Committee of Ministers] presented by Mr. Gedei and others on the situation of the Vojvodina Hungarians (Doc. 10262), August 3, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 30, 2005).

[3] Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Resolution 1397 (2004) - Functioning of democratic institutions in Serbia and Montenegro, October 5, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 30, 2005).

index  |  next>>October 2005