04 December 2006

Parliament adopts new Serbian constitution declaring Kosovo its own territory

Associated Press, Wednesday, November 08, 2006 7:29 AM


BELGRADE, Serbia-Serbia's parliament formally adopted a new constitution on Wednesday reasserting Serbia's claim over Kosovo and ruling out Belgrade's consent for possible independence of the predominantly ethnic Albanian province.


The constitution, which was approved in a popular referendum last month, has stirred controversy with its preamble that refers to Kosovo as part of Serbia, regardless of the southern province's current status as a U.N.-run protectorate and ongoing international negotiations aimed at determining its future status.


"I declare that the constitution, approved in the referendum, is adopted," said parliament speaker Predrag Markovic. There was no vote as the lawmakers greeted the formal declaration with applause.


Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, considered the author of the constitution, praised the charter saying its adoption "is a historic moment for Serbia."


Kosovo has been out of Serbia's control since 1999, when NATO air strikes forced Serbs to halt their crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians. Ninety percent of the province's population is ethnic Albanian.


While formally still part of Serbia, Kosovo is the subject of U.N.-mediated talks under the auspices of Western powers and Russia. There has been no breakthrough in the negotiations.


The International Crisis Group think tank issued a report Thursday saying that by adopting the new constitution, Serbia "is setting the stage to continue its generation-long role as a source of instability in the Balkans."


"The government is playing a game of high-stakes bluff", Nicholas Whyte, Crisis Group Europe Program Director, said in the report.


Whyte wrote that the aim of the new constitution was to show Serbian hostility to Kosovo's independence and create new legal barriers against it.


"It makes it legally impossible without further constitutional amendment for Serbia to recognize Kosovo independence and could contribute to long-term political instability," he added.


The government in Belgrade has proposed broad autonomy for Kosovo, but its ethnic Albanian majority insists on full independence.


The need for a new Serbian constitution arose in June after tiny Montenegro, a partner in the former Yugoslav federation, opted for sovereignty, leaving Serbia on its own for the first time since 1918.


While Serbia's bickering parties swiftly passed the new constitution Wednesday, they remained deadlocked on a set of electoral laws that were to pave the way for early general elections.


Ultranationalist Radicals, whose lawmakers wore white T-shirts on Wednesday emblazoned with a portrait of their leader Vojislav Seselj who is awaiting a war crimes trial at a U.N. tribunal in the Netherlands, oppose a proposal by Democrats that parliamentary and presidential elections be held as early as December.


The ultranationalists, who are already the biggest group in Serbia's parliament, want elections to be held after an outcome in the Kosovo negotiations, which are scheduled to conclude by the end of the year.


They are counting on gaining more seats in the assembly through an explosion of nationalism in Serbia that is expected to follow if Kosovo gains independence.