13 November 2006

Serbs vote in plebiscite on new constitution seeking to keep Kosovo

Associated Press, Friday, October 27, 2006 8:08 PM

BELGRADE, Serbia, A two-day referendum begins Saturday in Serbia on a new constitution featuring the country's claim over Kosovo, the breakaway province that Serbs do not want to give up even though its ethnic Albanian majority is demanding independence.

The Serbian government has praised the proposed constitution as a modern one, consolidating democracy and the rule of law in the Balkan country that hopes to join the European Union. But the highlight clearly has been on the preamble referring to Kosovo as an "integral part of Serbia."

"I particularly urge all citizens of Serbia, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, to vote for the new Constitution because of Kosovo," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on the eve of the plebiscite.

Urging the 6.6 million strong electorate to "express Serbia's resolve that no one can take our territory from us," Kostunica stressed that "Kosovo is Serbia," even though ongoing international talks on the province's future may decide otherwise.

Kosovo was Serbia's heartland in the Middle Ages but its current population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. In 1999, NATO bombing forced Serbs to halt their crackdown on the separatists and hand over control to a U.N. mission and NATO troops.

Western powers and Russia initiated the talks earlier this year to find a lasting solution for Kosovo, but there has been no breakthrough. Belgrade's offer of a broad autonomy has been rejected by the ethnic Albanians, who demand full independence.

Western diplomats have warned Belgrade that the new constitution will have no effect on the negotiations. Still, Serbia's parliament has approved the text, which now needs the voters' approval before it can take effect.

A turnout of at least 50 percent and a simple majority of `yes' votes is required for the referendum to succeed.

Most polls predict it will, particularly because Kosovo Albanians, who have long boycotted any ballot organized by Serbian authorities, have not even been invited to vote.

Kosovo Albanian leaders have dismissed the constitution as inconsequential for their future.

Several liberal groups and non-government organizations in Serbia also have condemned the charter as hastily drafted and flawed on issues like independence of the judiciary, equal rights for minorities and autonomy for local governments.

The critics also say the new constitution is not sufficiently different from the current one adopted in 1990 during the rule of former autocratic ruler Slobodan Milosevic.

The need for a new constitution arose in June after tiny Montenegro, Serbia's last partner from the former Yugoslav federation, declared independence and left Serbia on its own for the first time since 1918.

Uniquely united on the constitution issue, Serbia's lawmakers, hard-liners and moderates, nationalists and reformists, have endorsed the draft and engaged in a massive referendum campaign with television ads, billboards and public rallies, praising the charter under the slogan "For the good of Serbia."

The critics have advised their supporters to boycott the vote altogether as they hope the turnout would not reach the 50 percent threshold.