Mon, Oct 30, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Serbia holds constitutional referendum

RECLAIMING KOSOVO Serbians cast their vote to decide the fate of a new constitution declaring Kosovo, where 90 percent of the residents are Albanians, part of its territory


Serbians voted for a second day yesterday on a new constitution that reasserts the nation's claim on Kosovo, the breakaway province whose future status is under negotiation at UN-brokered talks.

But most of Kosovo's residents -- ethnic Albanians who want independence -- were left off the voter lists for the two-day referendum.

The Serbian government says the proposed constitution consolidates democracy and the rule of law in the Balkan country, which hopes to restart stalled membership talks with the EU. But the focus has been on the preamble's declaration that predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo is an "integral part of Serbia."

"The constitution completes Serbia's statehood and reaffirms that Kosovo is its integral part not only historically but also legally," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said as he cast his vote in Belgrade.

While 90 percent of the people in Kosovo are Albanians, ethnic Serbs consider the region to be the cultural and historic heartland of Serbia.

Kosovo Albanians have rejected the Serbian government's offer of broad autonomy, and are seeking independence at negotiations on the area's future status initiated by Western powers and Russia.

Western diplomats have warned Belgrade that the charter will have no effect on the talks, and Kosovo's Albanian leaders dismissed the constitution as inconsequential for their future.

"Kosovo Serbs should come to terms with the new reality in Kosovo," Muhamet Hamiti, a senior adviser to Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, said on Saturday.

More than 8,000 polling stations opened throughout Serbia, including in Serb-populated parts of Kosovo, where some 100,000 ethnic Serbs live.

Referendum authorities said 17.8 percent of voters had cast ballots by late Saturday afternoon, but no predictions were made about the possible overall turnout.

Turnout is crucial because a majority of Serbia's 6.6 million registered voters must cast a "yes" vote to adopt the constitution, which was approved overwhelmingly by parliament. Kostunica urged Serbians to take part in the plebiscite and "begin a new chapter in Serbia's history."

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority was left off the voter lists purportedly because it boycotted previous elections conducted under Serbian auspices.

Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999, when a US-led NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian leaders to halt a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists and hand over control of the region.

The proposed charter has been criticized by several liberal groups and non-governmental organizations in Serbia as hastily drafted and flawed on issues such as independence of the judiciary, equal rights for minorities and autonomy for local governments.

A few hundred opponents gathered in a central Belgrade square on Saturday urged a boycott of the referendum and signed their own "Charter of Freedom," which calls for creation of a modern Serbia based on civic freedoms.

Cedomir Jovanovic, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, accused Serbian authorities of pressuring people, particularly workers at state-run companies, into voting.

But leaders of several ethnic minorities, including a Muslim-led party, ethnic Hungarians and a Jewish organization, support the new constitution.

Serbian President Boris Tadic defended the charter as a break with the era of the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, which saw the former Serb-dominated Yugoslavia shattered by conflict and wars.

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