14 November 2006

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo dismiss Serbian referendum on Kosovo, vow to press for independence

Associated Press, Monday, October 30, 2006 11:45 AM


PRISTINA, Serbia-Serbian leaders on Monday hailed the outcome of a referendum restating the country's claim to Kosovo. But the European Union said the results of U.N.-mediated talks alone will decide the province's future status, and Kosovo's independence-minded ethnic Albanian majority dismissed the vote as a futile exercise.


The Serb plebiscite comes at a sensitive time, with Serbs and Kosovo Albanians deadlocked over demands from Belgrade that it be allowed to retain some hold on the province and Kosovo Albanians' insistence on independence.


Talks mediated by the United Nations have failed to resolve the impasse over the province's future, which led to a war between the two sides that ended in June 1999, after NATO bombing forced a withdrawal by troops loyal to Slobodan Milosevic, president of what was then Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.


Kosovo has been governed since then by the U.N., although ethnic Albanians, who constitute a more than 90-percent majority, have been granted increasing political responsibility. Along with Serbs outside Kosovo, the province's ethnic Serb minority is also vehemently opposed to independence for the province.


The referendum, on a new post-Milosevic era constitution that restates the Serb claim to Kosovo, nearly foundered with barely more than the required 50 percent turnout needed to make it valid.


Still, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica declared the results "made it clear that we will protect our country's integrity ... and that Kosovo is part of Serbia."


While voter participation was low in Serbia proper, 82.1 percent of those eligible voted among Kosovo's 100,000-strong Serb community, reflecting their fears for the future.


"It's important for us Serbs here to show that Kosovo is Serbia. We can't stay here otherwise, it would be impossible," said Serb Zivorad Kisic, in Kosovo's ethnically divided Kosovska Mitrovica. "This constitution gives us a glimmer of hope."


Oliver Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb leader, said the new constitution sends a "very important message" to international officials mediating in talks between Belgrade and Pristina.


"Serbia will not easily give up Kosovo, this is the main message," he said. "It tells the international community it must take into account the Serb stand as well, not only the one of (Kosovo) Albanians."


Predictably, Kosovo Albanians differed.


"We consider it very irrelevant," Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku said of the weekend vote in comments to Associated Press Television News.


Xhevat Matoshi, a pharmacist, said he felt pity for the Serbs.


"I don't care" about the referendum's outcome, he said in Pristina, the provincial capital. They need to understand that they lost Kosovo, and accept that we (Albanians) are majority."


And Sherif Bajgora, a 55-year-old retiree, said that Serbs should restrict their voting to "their own country." He added: "Here we have our own country."


The EU downplayed the referendum's significance, with EU spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy saying "the issue of the future status of Kosovo" was being dealt with the U.N.-mediated talks. And she said that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority was left off voters lists.


Frank Wisner, the U.S. envoy to the Kosovo talks already said last week that the referendum would not affect the international community's decision on the province's final status.


Meanwhile, the united front shown during the referendum by Serbia's main political parties was cracking Monday as pro-Western reformists and the hardline nationalists disagreed over the country's next vote, planned early elections.


The pro-Western president and his Democratic Party want to hold both parliamentary and presidential elections before year end. Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic said it would be "impossible" to hold elections this year and that the votes should be staggered.


Kosovo, long an autonomous province of Serbia, was stripped of that status 1989 by Milosevic amid a building Serb crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority. The war that followed nearly a decade later left about 10,000 people dead, most of them ethnic Albanians. About 1 million others fled temporarily to neighboring Albania and Macedonia.


Reporting on what it billed as a compromise solution, the daily newspaper "Express" on Monday published details of a draft U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari is expected to present by mid-November.


It quoted an unidentified diplomat saying the document stops short of mentioning independence. "But the sovereign competencies given in this document have only one meaning: independence with limited sovereignty," the quote read.


Associated Press writers Katarina Kratovac and Jovana Gec contributed to this report from Belgrade.