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Serbs to Vote on New Constitution That Says Kosovo is Integral Part of Serbia

On October 28 and 29 Serbs will vote on a new constitution, their country's first in the post-Milosevic era. The constitution is controversial because its preamble declares the breakaway, ethnic- Albanian majority province of Kosovo an integral part of the Republic of Serbia.

Opposition lawmaker Zarko Korac says Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is using the constitution and the referendum on it to consolidate power.

"I think Kostunica wants to consolidate himself as a nationalistic leader, to keep at least one of his promises when he was elected prime minister [in 2003], meaning, to give Serbia a new constitution, because on all other accounts he miserably failed," said Zarko Korac.

Former Belgrade diplomat Vladimir Matic, who is now a political scientist at America's Clemson University, says Mr. Kostunica has skillfully used the constitution to strengthen Serbia's position in the negotiations on Kosovo's future.

"It [discussion of the constitution] was remade into an issue about Kosovo," said Matic. "And a national consensus was formed on the platform of keeping sovereignty over Kosovo. And the constitution is just an instrument in attempting to achieve that or at least postpone for some time the decision on the final status of Kosovo."

United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari has said his plan for Kosovo's future should be ready by the end of this year. It is expected to call for some kind of independence for the province Serbs regard as their religious heartland. Kosovo has been run by the U.N. since 1999, when three months of NATO bombing forced the withdrawal of the Serbian forces from the province. The Serb forces had been accused of brutality against the local population.

Balkans analyst Obrad Kesic calls the constitution a major victory for Prime Minister Kostunica. He says it sends an signal: that Serbs will not easily accede to the loss of Kosovo.

"I think this is another attempt to bring to the attention of the West, particularly Washington and Brussels, that Serbia is not prepared to simply lift up its hands and give up Kosovo without a struggle," said Kesic.

Political scientist Vladimir Matic says the constitution lacks legitimacy, in part because of the hasty manner in which it was presented to parliament, on September 30.

"The members of parliament didn't even have time to read it before they accepted it unanimously by acclimation," he said. "There was no vote, which adds to this lack of legitimacy."

The referendum is similarly controversial. Albanians in Kosovo will not be permitted to vote because Belgrade says there is no reliable voters roll. To be approved, the constitution must win the support of a majority of all registered voters. James Lyon, the Belgrade representative of the International Crisis Group, sees potential for fraud.

"I think the government will do everything it can to steal it," said James Lyon. "The government is also setting up all kinds of administrative barriers to prevent observers from observing the election. It is charging election observers five euros [$6.50] per head to monitor the election. I've monitored elections-you never charge election observers."

The new constitution declares Serbia to be the homeland of the Serbian people and all its citizens. It also says the official script is the Cyrillic alphabet, which is not used by Serbia's ethnic minorities. James Lyon says the new document is deeply flawed and would allow for abuses of power, for example in the judiciary.

"It says the judiciary is independent but in actuality when you read the document it is completely under the control of the governing parliamentary coalition," he said. "It opens up the way for a parliamentary dictatorship."

Before it was presented to parliament, the constitution was endorsed by the leaders of Serbia's four major parties: President Boris Tadic's Democrats, Mr. Kostunica's Serbian Democrats, the Socialists, and the nationalist Radicals.