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Serbs Approve New Constitution

Serbia has overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that, among other things, declares Kosovo an "integral part" of Serbia, according to preliminary results. Independent observers and officials say that more than 53 percent of the voters cast their ballots, which is enough to make the constitutional referendum valid.

The Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy says just over half of Serbian voters approved the new constitution, which declares Kosovo "an integral part of Serbia." Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had warned of what he called "unforeseeable consequences" if the vote failed.

The referendum raised eyebrows among 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 NATO bombardment forced Serb troops out the territory.

Although the roughly two million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo form a majority, they were not invited to participate in Sunday's referendum. But ethnic Albanian leaders say the outcome of the vote will have no impact on their efforts to break away from Serbia.

The government in Belgrade claims the new constitution, which is backed by major parties and the Orthodox Church, consolidates democracy and the rule of law in the Balkan country.

The Serbian leadership also hopes the document will help to restart stalled membership talks with the European Union. Serbian President Boris Tadic says the constitution puts an end to the era of Slobodan Milosevic, who died in prison this year at the U.N. war crimes tribunal, where he was tried on a number of charges stemming from the 1990s Balkans war.

"A new constitution, this is very important for us, especially regarding the last constitution," he said. "We are trying to make some break from the Milosevic period and this is from our point of view very, very important. At the same time we [are creating] better protection for all national minorities."

That view is apparently shared by leaders of several ethnic minorities, including a Muslim-led party, ethnic Hungarians and a Jewish organization, which support the new constitution.

However critics say the new constitution is more about nationalism and Serbian statehood than democracy itself. Opponents already gathered in Belgrade to sign their own "Charter of Freedom," which calls for the creation of "a modern Serbia based on civic freedoms."

About six and a half million people were entitled to vote in the national referendum and more than 53 percent of them did.