Clinging to Kosovo Serbia Passes New Constitution

Serbian voters on Sunday barely approved a new constitution for the country. The document asserts Serbia's claim to Kosovo and may make final-status talks on the province's future more difficult than they already were.

A Serbian woman passes by posters promoting a "YES!" vote in the constitutional referendum.

A Serbian woman passes by posters promoting a "YES!" vote in the constitutional referendum.

Serbs voted with a narrow majority for a new constitution over the weekend -- one that unequivocally lays claim to Kosovo. While final results are to be announced later Monday, a sample count by the respected Center for Free Elections and Democracy indicated that 51.6 percent of eligible voters had backed the new legal charter. Although the turn out was low, at only 53.5 percent, a whopping 96 percent of those who cast a vote supported the new constitution. Most of those who opposed it had opted to boycott the poll completely.

Earlier on Sunday it looked as though there was a danger that the poll might be declared invalid due to a far from enthusiastic turn out. At least 50 percent of the country's 6.6 million electorate were required to approve of the constitution which had already been passed by the country's parliament.

The 206-article constitution includes a preamble in which Kosovo is expressly described as an "integral part of Serbia." The referendum was strongly condemned by ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million inhabitants.

The Kosovo Albanians were not able to vote as they had not been included in the electoral register after boycotting Serbian elections since 1990. Many Serbs cherish the province as their historic homeland, even though the Serbian community in Kosovo has dwindled to just 100,000. When the results were declared on Sunday night, hundreds gathered in the Serb town of Kosovska Mitrovica in the north of the province to celebrate, shouting "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia" and waving banners.

Conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called the vote "a great moment for Serbia." Speaking on Serbian state television, he said: "This is a historic moment, a beginning of a new era." The country's pro-western president Boris Tadic, who had also backed the new legal charter, stressed that it left the old constitution of Slobodan Milosevic "behind us." With new elections expected before the end of the year he also said that he expected to see "a very strong democratic majority and a democratic government which is going to lead Serbia to the European Union."

The government had put its weight behind the yes vote, with ads flashing across television screens on Sunday urging people to vote. Bojan Kostres, the provincial speaker in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, where turnout was very low, accused the Belgrade government of forcing the new constitution. "The final voting hours were very strange," he told the AP, "with a sudden steep rise in turnout."

Serbia's opposition Liberal Party, which had called for the boycott, claimed "massive fraud" had taken place at polling stations in the final hours of voting, alleging that some people voted several times and without identification papers. The referendum was held over two days in order to attract as many voters as possible.

The need for a new constitution arose in June after Montenegro declared its independence from Serbia -- the final nail in the coffin of the old Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The province of Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999, after NATO air strikes halted the violent crackdown by Belgrade on an insurgency by ethnic-Albanian Kosovars. UN sponsored talks over the future of Kosovo are set to continue despite the Serb referendum, with a UN vote on the final status of the province expected within the next few months. Kosovo's claims for independence have found sympathy of the West, following the killing and displacement of ethnic Albanian civilians during the 1999 war.

Belgrade, though, is unwilling to give up the province without a fight. Prime Minister Kostunica told Russian state television on Sunday "I am warning supporters of independence of Kosovo, who in unofficial talks are already talking about the possibility of recognition, that such a step would not remain without consequences."

Also on Sunday, Germany's Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung announced that he is in favor of ending the Bundeswehr presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Speaking on the ZDF TV channel, the minister warned that the German military was reaching the limits of its capacity. Germany has 1,000 troops stationed in Bosnia, and it is now finding itself over-stretched by other military engagements, including those in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Congo, and off the coast of Lebanon.

According to Jung, a member of the conservative Christian Democrats, Bosnia would seem to be well on the way to stabilization following peaceful elections on Oct. 3. He said that the there would be talks in December about a concrete "exit strategy."

Jung's predecessor at the defense ministry, Peter Struck of the Social Democrats, said "One must always question whether a deployment is justified." In an interview with Bild am Sonntag he said, "The war in Bosnia has been over for 11 years and the Bundeswehr is still there with a large contingent. We have to gradually reach the goal of our soldiers leaving Bosnia."



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