By Aleksandar Vasovic and Matt Robinson
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Serbia's ruling parties rallied against the leadership of the country's autonomous Vojvodina province on Friday, against a backdrop of rising political tension over the northern region.
An area of flat fertile plains, Vojvodina is the agricultural bread basket of Serbia and home to a large minority of some 300,000 Hungarians. Its level of autonomy has seesawed over the past several decades, and has come under renewed scrutiny since power changed hands in Serbia in mid-2012.
Vojvodina is controlled by Serbia's opposition Democratic Party in coalition with an ethnic Hungarian party.
The latest row erupted this week when the Democrats, who lost power at the state level last year, tabled a parliamentary declaration reaffirming the rights and powers of the autonomous region.
It has been at odds with Belgrade for months over the distribution of public and fiscal revenues and the powers of the Vojvodina authorities.
The two main parties in Serbia's ruling coalition - nationalists and socialists who last ruled together under late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the bloody collapse of federal Yugoslavia - accused the Democrats of trying to stir up separatism.
Milosevic stripped both Vojvodina and Serbia's then southern Kosovo province of their autonomous powers in the late 1980s. The Democrats, who helped oust Milosevic in 2000, restored their privileges, but autonomy remains a sensitive issue in Serbia since Kosovo broke away in war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008.
TENSION OVER KOSOVO
The declaration was tabled just as Belgrade was coming under intense pressure from the European Union to cede its fragile hold on a small Serb pocket of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are the 90 percent majority.
The nationalists said the timing was no coincidence, and about 10,000 of their supporters rallied outside the Vojvodina government building in Serbia's second city of Novi Sad, 70 km (44 miles) north of the capital Belgrade.
Protesters in Novi Sad, as shown on one of Serbia's privately owned television channels, waved Serbian flags and chanted patriotic slogans including "Kosovo is Serbia" and "Down with Vojvodina".
Police in riot gear cordoned off buildings in Novi Sad, including a government building and the local TV station. No incidents were reported during the rally.
Igor Mirovic, deputy head of Serbia's ruling nationalist Progressive Party of Serbia, called for the ouster of the Vojvodina government and its Prime Minister Bojan Pajtic, who is deputy head of the Democratic Party.
"We do not need more divisions between Belgrade and Vojvodina ... we are demanding retraction of that shameful declaration, early (provincial) elections and resignation of Pajtic and his clique," Mirovic told the cheering crowd.
Elections in Vojvodina are scheduled for 2016.
Faced with backlash from Belgrade, the Vojvodina government postponed debate on the declaration, but defended the text.
"I want to stress that there isn't even the 'S' of 'separatism' in this declaration," Pajtic told the Serbian daily newspaper Politika.
"All this declaration calls for is respect for the constitutional and legal position of Vojvodina," he said.
The dispute has the potential to stir tension between Serbia and its northern neighbor, European Union-member Hungary, which watches closely for signs of discrimination against ethnic Hungarians who make up some 13 percent of Vojvodina's almost 2 million people.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Michael Roddy)