13 November 2006

Serbia Holds Referendum - on Constitution or on the Preamble

AXIS INFORMATION AND ANALYSIS, 24.10.2006, By Can Karpat, AIA Balkan Section


On 28th October, Serbia holds referendum on the new Constitution. Since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, there has been much talk of the need of a new Constitution in Serbia. Now it seems that Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has kept at least one of his promises - a new Constitution at last. However, there are a lot of controversies about the draft and the way the referendum will be held in Kosovo. And it is absolutely impossible to predict the outcome of this most crucial referendum of Serbia.


The Kosovo preamble: a fa├žade?


Let us begin with the notorious preamble, which describes Kosovo as a "constituent part of Serbia's territory". This preamble is definitely the main material of the pre-referendum campaigns in Serbia and the main topic on the international agenda.


After six years of discussion and delay, the new Constitution was adopted by Parliament on 30th September in a great rush. So much that 250 MPs of the Serbian Assembly did not really have time to read the draft. There was no official vote. Instead the draft was adopted by general ovation. Now the Serbs were invited to vote a draft that they did not even read.


However, everyone knows the preamble by heart. And it seems that this counts more than the rest of the draft. Is the government trying to turn the referendum on Constitution into an indirect referendum on Kosovo?


Referendum poster in Belgrade


Some international big wigs accuse Serbia of adopting such a Constitution just to influence the outcome of the Kosovo status negotiations. If the Serbian government has such intentions, their effort is indeed in vain and absurd. For everyone grosso modo knows the outcome of the negotiations - some kind of independence for Kosovo.


However, everyone also knows the official attitude of Belgrade as long as Kosovo is concerned. So why to make so much ado about the preamble? After all, Serbia is just repeating herself - Kosovo is and will always be a Serbian territory, etc.


The purpose of this preamble seems to overshadow all the rest. It is a known fact that by referenda one people also sanctions its government. In order to camouflage its political and economic failures, the Serbian government has offered the people just one Constitution or rather just one preamble that they cannot resist - keeping sovereignty over Kosovo, Serbia's Jerusalem.


If the Constitution is approved by the people, its preamble as it is will be quickly nullified anyhow - at the end of this year or in 2007. And if Serbia really aspires to the EU membership, she will have to modify this preamble one day anyway. Serbia is swimming against the stream indeed. But what else she would have done is yet another question that no one really has an answer.


"A gift to the people"


The introduction describes the draft as a "gift to the people". Cynically thinking, this formulation is extremely funny. If the draft is indeed a "gift", it would be very "impolite" for the Serbs to refuse it.


More seriously, apart this democratically suspect and politically unnecessary introduction, the first article is much more problematic. The article declares that "Serbia is the homeland of the Serbs". Moreover, it endorses the use of Cyrillic alphabet only. The use of other minority languages is not guaranteed by the new Constitution.


Contrary to the image that the Serbs would like to give of their country, Serbia is actually a multi-ethnic jewel. In Vojvodina only, there are more than 26 different ethnicities. In the Sandzak region, the Bosniaks are majority; in the Presevo Valley, the Albanians. And if we reason in a Serbian logic, we should also include Kosovo into this list where 90 percent of the people are Albanian. These peoples are no Serbs and none of them use the Cyrillic alphabet. So it seems that the draft is a "gift" only to the ethnic Serbs of Serbia.


The draft was prepared by a single parliamentary committee and without public participation. If there is any meeting, those were between the party leaders only. Minorities were not really included into the process of preparation.


President of Vojvodina Assembly Bojan Kostres publicly called the inhabitants of the province to boycott the referendum. According to him, the new Constitution is contrary to the European principles and even more archaic than the current Constitution adopted under the Milosevic regime. In short, for Kostres, the financial autonomy is not enough.


The most popular regionalist party of Vojvodina, namely Nenad Canak's League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV) joined three other Serbian parties, which call the people to boycott the referendum for similar reasons. For these parties, the vote itself would represent the approval of "Milosevic's game".


The picture, however, is not crystal clear.


Anti-referendum posters in Belgrade


According to the Prime Minister of Vojvodina Bojan Pajtic, the financial autonomy represents a "real autonomy" for the province. And the chairman of the List for Sandzak Sulejman Ugljanin and the representative of the same party Bajram Omeragic approved the draft. However, as early as August, the latter warned that if the Constitution declares Serbia as the homeland of the Serbs, he would commit himself as the spokesman of all minorities living in Serbia and demand the enumeration of those in the preamble. As to the Council of the Muslim community of Sandzak, they condemned the fact that the draft "ignored the demands of Bosniaks". And nobody is really sure what the Albanians of the Presevo Valley will do at this most crucial referendum for Serbia.


In short, the result of the referendum is far from being clear.


A partial referendum in Kosovo


The Republic Election Commission (RIK) decided to include only the Serbs of Kosovo into the electoral list for this referendum. Thus we have about 6.533.000 registered voters of Serbia proper, plus 186.000 Serbs of Kosovo. Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Nebojsa Covic criticised this decision and stated that the referendum also concerns the Kosovo Albanians. Legally speaking it is no doubt the truth. Yet, to include them would have been a political suicide for the Serbian government. Counting the Kosovo Albanian voters would increase the number of the Serbian electorate. And if the Albanians boycotted or rejected the referendum, the adoption of the new Constitution would be seriously endangered, since it must be approved by the majority of the electorate. Note that on 19th October, the Kosovo Parliament condemned the preamble of the new Serbian Constitution.


However, symbolically it is a tragi-comical picture. After all, why vote for a Constitution that claims Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia while excluding the inhabitants of this region from the electorate? Serbia gives the impression that she wants Kosovo for the sake of the territory, and not its people.


It seems that Serbia will have very hard times until the end of this year. After the referendum, there is a big probability that the early elections be held in December.


For the exact date of the general elections has not been fixed yet, the international community gives rather ambiguous signals as far as the timeline of the Kosovo status is concerned. However, it seems that especially the EU is now ready to grant Serbia its empathy.


Last Monday there was an interesting conference on the Balkans in Paris at Maison de l'Europe. Among the guests there were chairman of the Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija (SLKM) Oliver Ivanovic and former Prime Minister of Kosovo Bajram Rexhepi. About the possible prorogation of the Kosovo status, Rexhepi accused Serbia of "borrowing time", to which Ivanovic vehemently opposed.


Whatever the diplomatic courtesy may stipulate, either borrowed or granted, Serbia definitely needs time. And the international community could afford to grant a little break as long as it costs nothing.


However, according to some analysts, such a prorogation on the contrary would cost a lot. Those worry that Kosovo sinks in an atmosphere similar to that of March 2004.


This would be most surprising for one simple reason. The current political situation radically differs from that of March 2004. At that time, Kosovo Albanians could not see the light at the end of the tunnel and they had no reason to have big hopes as long as their future was concerned. However, today it is obvious that they will be granted some kind of independence - either through a compromise solution or through an international Diktat imposed by the UN Security Council.


Although the collective instinct of the masses is impenetrable, Kosovo Albanians must feel that sooner or later they will have what they have ever wanted anyway. A breakout of violence would be counter-productive for the Albanian cause. And finally, one should always have in mind that the political stability of Serbia is also the condition of Kosovo's interior security.