29 October 2006

Serbia's new constitution warns against Kosovo independence

Agence France Presse, Sun Oct 1, 8:32 AM ET

Serbia's proposed new constitution claiming sovereignty over Kosovo will be an obstacle but cannot hamper ongoing talks about the future status of the UN-administered province, its government has said.

"The authorities are sending a message to the international community that Serbia will always consider Kosovo part of its territory," prominent Belgrade law professor and human rights activist Vojin Dimitrijevic told AFP Sunday.

"I doubt that Serbia has the strength to do more than send such a message or that anyone outside Serbia will be deeply impressed by it," he added.

The Serbian parliament unanimously approved the constitution late Saturday as a signal that it would not give up the southern province ahead of a decision on Kosovo's final status expected later this year.

Lutfi Haziri, deputy prime minister of Kosovo, told reporters Sunday that "this is a unilateral decision which will create problems in the future in normalising the relations between an independent Kosovo and Serbia," but, he added: "I don't think the decision will be an obstacle for the status talks."

Serbian lawmakers also decided that a referendum on the new constitution would be held on October 28-29.

Serbia's leadership urged citizens to go out and vote as more than 50 percent of the electorate must agree on the constitution for it to be adopted.

But the referendum, in all likelihood, will be held without Kosovo's ethnic Albanian voters although they constitute 90 percent of the population in the province.

While they have the right to register and vote, pro-independence ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have boycotted all elections in Serbia since 1990 and in the last six years have not been included on the electoral list of 6.5 million Serbian voters.

"This will not change," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on Saturday.

The text was drafted in only a couple of weeks and without public debate in a rush to preempt the international community potentially granting the province some kind of independence.

"The province of Kosovo is an integral part of Serbian territory, has a position of substantial autonomy within the framework of the sovereign state of Serbia, and from such a position is derived the constitutional obligation of all state institutions to protect the interests of Serbia in Kosovo in all internal and foreign political relations," the preamble to the proposed new constitution reads.

Slobodan Vucetic, chairman of Serbia's constitutional court, said the preamble was "a symbolic warning to the international community" related to Kosovo's status.

The parliament vote came despite ongoing talks between Serbian officials and the ethnic Albanian leadership in Kosovo over the future status of the province currently administered by the United Nations.

The international community has insisted these UN-sponsored talks are concluded by the end of the year, but so far neither side has shown any signs of compromise.

"I see no reason to wait for Kosovo's status to be solved first," Kostunica told the media earlier on Saturday.

"For Serbia, the issue of Kosovo is solved by the fact that it is an integral part of Serbia and that international law confirms this."

"I am assuring you that this constitution will not be changed, no matter what the outcome of the talks on the future status of Kosovo," he added.

Kosovo has been an international protectorate since June 1999 following the end of the conflict between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian separatist fighters.