28 October 2006

Serbian parliament unanimously adopts new constitution

Deutsche Presse Agentur, Oct 1, 2006, 19:00 GMT

Belgrade - The Serbian parliament unanimously adopted the draft of a new constitution Saturday, reaffirming the country's hold on the breakaway Kosovo province and setting a date for a public referendum to enshrine the document into law.

The referendum set for October 28 and 29 marks the final hurdle before the new constitution comes into effect, and will have to be backed by more than 50 per cent of the 6.5 million registered voters in the country.

All 242 members of parliament present in the 250-seat assembly approved the draft during an emergency session Saturday evening, easily surpassing the necessary two-thirds majority, though most of them saw the draft for the first time on the day the were due to vote for it.

The secretive, hastily-drafted bill was agreed by Serbia's leading political parties Friday following two weeks of haggling behind closed doors.

'This constitution is incomparably better than the previous one,' Serbian President Boris Tadic said in opening the parliamentary session, referring to the current constitution adopted by the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

However, Tadic lamented the lack of public debate prior to the bill's adoption but added that what was most important now was for the constitution - which has not yet been released to the public - to be passed.

The absence of a public debate also drew criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in a statement issued Friday.

'By adopting the new constitution, Serbia becomes the maker of its own destiny,' Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in his address to the parliament.

The draft constitution was forged ahead of the decision on the final status of Serbia's breakaway province, Kosovo, where the majority ethnic Albanians are seeking independence.

United Nations-mediated negotiations on the region's final status are underway in Vienna, and the international community has pushed for their completion by the end of the year.

The new constitution 'seals the truth that Kosovo and Metohija (a part of the province) has always been and always will be an integral part of the territory of Serbia,' Kostunica said before voting began, drawing applause from the MPs.

The statement reiterated ones made earlier by Serbian politicians that the document, which affirms the country's sovereignty claim over Kosovo, was pushed ahead to 'defend' Serbia from the loss of its province, the scene of a bloody ethnic conflict in 1999.

But though Belgrade claims sovereignty over them, the more than 1 million Kosovo Albanian voters, whom Belgrade considers citizens, would likely not be allowed to vote in the October referendum.

Should they be included after all, it would raise the minimum of positive votes needed from around 3.25 to 3.75 million.

While Kosovo appears on the verge of independence, Serbia has lost all momentum in its attempt to gain European Union and NATO membership, owing to its reluctance to arrest the remaining war crime suspects from the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, most of all the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic.

Apart from the political issues of war crimes and Kosovo, Serbia also remains plagued by crime and widespread corruption, poverty and a grotesquely inefficient justice system.