28 October 2006

Serbian leaders draft new constitution declaring Kosovo part of republic

Associated Press, Friday, September 29, 2006 12:47 PM

Government minister Zoran Loncar said the draft constitution would be submitted to the Serbian parliament for an urgent review and a vote. Parliament may convene as early as Saturday to deal with it, and a national referendum excluding Kosovo could be held in early November.

Pro-Western President Boris Tadic welcomed the development.

He said the new constitution would be a significant improvement on the 1990 charter drafted by late autocratic ruler Slobodan Milosevic, and would affirm Serbia's commitment to "develop our society in a pro-European manner."

But Tadic said he regretted that the hurried drafting was not followed by a wide public debate.

The draft would need a two-thirds approval in the 250-member assembly and a yes-vote in the referendum before it could take effect. It would also likely lead to early elections, in late 2006 or 2007.

Europe's top security body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also said apparent consensus among key political players was a positive thing, but urged that enough time be provided for a debate before a parliament vote.

The OSCE did not comment on any element of content of the draft, but said a "constitution is the fundamental social and legal document of a state."

"The widest possible civic involvement and consensus will further enhance its democratic legitimacy," its statement said.

The constitution would declare Kosovo, Serbia's troubled southern region, which has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999, part of the republic, Loncar said.

Inclusion of the Kosovo element in the draft is seen as a bid to counter increasing signs that Kosovo will be granted some form of independence at the international talks.

Passage of the new constitution would effectively rule out Belgrade's consent to Kosovo's independence.

"If 4 million people were to vote in the referendum, that would show to the international community that Serbia is united in its bid to preserve its identity," said Vojislav Mihailovic, deputy parliament speaker.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to halt Belgrade's crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians. Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians insist on independence, while Belgrade says the region should remain at least formally within Serbia's boundaries.

The urgency in the handling of the draft is designed to underscore Serbia's opposition to Kosovo's possible secession.

It is also widely seen as a face-saving effort by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who is facing a government crisis and a possible walkout of a key coalition member.

Liberal G17 Party has threatened to leave the Cabinet over Serbia's failure to arrest top war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic and resume pre-entry talks with the European Union.

The draft constitution also grants a form of self-rule to the northern province of Vojvodina, said Dusan Petrovic, from the pro-Western Democratic Party. No other details about the draft's contents were immediately available.

Though Serbian leaders have pledged to oppose independence for Kosovo, they have ruled out armed conflict over the province.

About 10,000 people were killed in Kosovo during the 1998-99 war.