14 November 2006

Serbs claim Kosovo after struggle in referendum

TIMES (UK), October 30, 2006 By David Charter, Europe Correspondent

VOTERS in Serbia backed a new constitution reinforcing sovereignty over Kosovo last night before a UN assessment of the province's suitability for independence.

The referendum on the country's new constitution only narrowly reached the 50 per cent threshold for success after desperate last-minute television appeals by Vojislav Kostunica, the Prime Minister, who gave warning of "unforeseeable consequences" if it failed.

The Belgrade-based Centre for Free Elections and Democracy said that a sample count indicated that 96 per cent of voters were in favour of the new constitution.

But while the document will put the state of Serbia on a legal basis after the independence of Montenegro, its claim that Kosovo is "integral" to the country is widely seen as a provocative act when some form of independence is likely to be proposed by the UN soon.

There were also claims from the opposition Liberal Party of fraud amid the pressure to find votes as last night's poll deadline approached.

While Kosovo lies within Serbia's southern borders, it has been under UN control since Nato's armed intervention to stop ethnic cleansing of the province in 1999 and is widely understood to be heading for some kind of independence. Mr Kostunica had hoped for a resounding demonstration of traditional Serb patriotism before the long-awaited verdict on the status of Kosovo by Martii Ahtisaari, the UN Special Envoy.

But the struggle to secure a "yes" vote after a month-long campaign led by the Government and the Serbian Christian Orthodox Church suggested widespread antipathy towards the political establishment in Belgrade.

The vote took place amid rising international tensions over Kosovo, with fears that Russia could veto independence moves at the UN because of concerns over a precedent for Chechnya. Similarly, China might feel that independence would set a precedent for relinquishing its claim to Taiwan or Tibet.

However, President Putin of Russia has also said that independence for Kosovo would set a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian supported enclaves in Georgia causing a stand-off between Moscow and Tbilisi.

The Serbian constitutional campaign was roundly ignored by the million-plus ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo, who have boycotted all elections since 1990 as part of their campaign for independence, but received its strongest support from the 100,000 Serbian population there. While Western diplomats ponder what price will be exacted by Mr Putin for not vetoing the eventual independence plan, the US has sent a special envoy to Serbia to call for calm. Denis MacShane, MP, the former Europe Minister, said: "It is time for the Serbs to let go of Kosovo and concentrate on their own future as a dynamic European nation looking to a European future and not to a Greater Serbian nationalistic past." Mr Ahtisaari is expected to announce a "managed" or "conditional" independence. But there are fears of a declaration of independence f rom the Kosovo Albanians.