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Serbia Approves Constitution Amid International Concern


Serbia's government says results of Sunday's referendum show a majority of voters have approved a new constitution, which declares predominantly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo province an "integral part" of the country. However, Western diplomats have warned that only U.N. talks can decide the future of the U.N.-administered province. Preliminary results show around 51.5 percent of the voters backed the constitution, despite international concerns it could create tensions.

Serbs drove through the streets, holding flags as they celebrated the results. Slightly more than half of Serbian voters approved the new constitution, which declares Kosovo "an integral part of Serbia." Proponents of the measure say the results solidify Serbia's claim on Kosovo.

The vote is a major victory for Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who had warned of what he called "unforeseeable consequences," if the vote failed. He told reporters his country had become a stronger nation.

He says the new constitution establishes the rule of law and makes clear Kosovo is now part of Serbia. The move is expected to put more pressure on international mediators, who are in the middle of negotiations over the future status of Kosovo.

The province has been under United Nations control since 1999, after North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes forced a withdrawal of Serb troops, who were cracking down on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

Ethnic Albanian leaders say the outcome of the vote will have no impact on their efforts to break away from Serbia. Serbian President Boris Tadic does not share that view. After hearing the news the constitution was accepted, he predicted it will be easier for Serbia to revive the stalled talks on its European Union membership.

He said, "This is a really important moment for our country, making a distance from the Milosevic period. I think we are creating a better future for Serbia today. I am expecting that the next elections that are going to be after this constitutional referendum, will make it possible to form a very strong democratic majority in our parliament and a democratic government, which will lead Serbia towards the European Union."

About six and a half million people were entitled to vote in the national referendum, but only 53 percent of them did. Despite major political parties showing a united front, there have been divisions about Serbia's first constitution since the break up of Yugoslavia.

Critics claim the new constitution is more about nationalism and Serbian statehood than democracy, itself. Opponents collected signatures for what they call their own "Charter of Freedom," which calls for the creation of "a modern Serbia based on civic freedoms."

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