13 November 2006

Kosovo Serbs see constitution referendum crucial for their future in the province

Associated Press, Friday, October 27, 2006 11:18 AM

OSOJANE, Serbia-In the tiny western village of Osojane in the breakaway province of Kosovo, Vlastimir Vukovic shared his home-made plum brandy with a fellow Serb. The bottle he kept it in had a label written in Albanian, as is virtually everything else surrounding the remote Serb enclave, from the road signs to the graffiti on the walls.

On Saturday, the Serbs plan to walk past NATO peacekeepers' tanks guarding the village and into the local school to cast ballots in a referendum on a new constitution that declares Kosovo an integral part of Serbia.

Vukovic says the vote is crucial if there is to be a future for the Serbs in Kosovo, where the majority ethnic Albanians are seeking independence.

"There is no life for Serbs here, unless Kosovo is part of Serbia," said Vukovic, 68.

Some 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, most of them in isolated enclaves under the protection of the peacekeepers.

Although diplomats insist the referendum has no bearing on U.N.-led negotiations on the political future of Kosovo, the vote reflects the deep divisions between the province's communities.

The province, now administered by the United Nations, has struggled to recover from a 1998-99 war that left some 10,000 dead and pitted Serbs and ethnic Albanians against one another.

A key article in the new constitution reasserts the breakaway province, which the Serbs consider its cultural heartland, is a part of Serbia. Western diplomats say the province is likely to gain some form of independence.

"I will never live in an independent Kosovo," Vukovic said. "The constitution treats Kosovo as Serbia and that means Belgrade will protects us," he said.

He passed a glass of brandy to Jagos Djuric, sitting next to him. The two are among some 30 Serbs who returned to live in Osojane after initially fleeing in the aftermath of the conflict, when ethnic Albanians sought revenge for the actions of Serb forces.

Djuric, 52, said living conditions were difficult, jobs were scarce and there was no safety, issues he believes only Serbia can alleviate if it retains control of the province.

Ethnic Albanians insist Serbia has lost the right to govern the province after the death and destruction it brought.

"It cannot bring them any good," said Ylber Hysa, an ethnic Albanian legislator involved in talks with Serbia. "In Kosovo the vote is more an act of internal politics and a provocation rather than a true attempt to retain Kosovo within Serbia."

Analysts contend that the vote will just harden the stands of the opposing communities.

"The referendum will make it difficult for Belgrade to recognize any change in Kosovo's status," said Daniel Serwer, an expert on peace and security operations at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

"This is what Kostunica wants: Belgrade locked into a position of seeking recovery of territory. This could be a source of instability for many years to come," he said.