Kosovo at Center of Vote on Serbian Constitution

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Serbia votes on a new constitution that affirms its claim to the breakaway province of Kosovo. Serbian political leaders are urging people to adopt the constitution, but critics say this could be a step in the wrong direction. Emily Harris reports.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the Suez crisis 50 years later.

But first, Serbian votes on a new constitution today, getting rid of the one adopted under Slobodan Milosevic, the former president who led Serbia to war in the 1990's.

Serbs are being urged to vote yes by almost their politic leaders, because the new constitution affirms Serbia's claim to the province of Kosovo. But critics say if the new constitution is passed, Serbia maybe taking a step backwards. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS: Serbia's new constitution defines Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia that the president's swears to preserve.

That's why 80-year old Naida Ingitch(ph) is going to vote.

Ms. NAIDA INGITCH (Serbian Voter): (Speaking foreign language)(Through translation): It is very important for me that all of Serbia survives and not to give up Kosovo.

HARRIS: NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to stop the killing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations. Sometime in the next few months, the UN is expected to grant Kosovo at least some degree of independence.

Kosovo-Albanian politicians told a local newspaper the referendum could escalate already high tensions. Dan Anasaerich(ph) of the Serbian weekly magazine Vrenya(ph), says it shouldn't be taken so seriously.

Mr. DAN ANASAERICH (Magazine Writer): Any country can write whatever it was in wants into its constitution. Germany, for example, that both Western and Eastern Germanies had their constitutions during the Cold War period, in both of which it was written that there is only one Germany and it's them. And in real life it is not so. So whatever happens with Kosovo will not be affected by this constitution. It was really just applied to bring people out to vote.

HARRIS: More than 50 percent turnout is required for this referendum to be valid. The vast majority of Kosovo Albanians will have no chance to vote on the constitution, although it defines them as living in Serbia.

Human rights lawyer Belanda Kovacherich Vucho(ph) says that's part of the problem with the process. She also says the new constitution moves Serbia back towards central control.

Ms. BELANDA KOVACHERICH VUCHO (Human Rights Lawyer): Autonomy and centralization is a great problem. We have now more centralized country than we used to have during the (unintelligible) period.

HARRIS: Parliament already elects judges in Serbia, but under the new constitution, first time judges would serve a probationary period before confirmation for lifelong positions. Critics also interpret one section of the constitution as giving political parties total control over individual members of parliament, including how they vote and whether they keep their jobs.

But few ordinary voters seem to think about that. They think about Kosovo.

(Soundbite of students dancing)

HARRIS: Students practice folk dancing during a break at an elementary school in Cravervoch(ph) in Central Serbia. Some analysts say Serbia would be better off without Kosovo, in part because Kosovo Albanians have more children than Serbs and could become the majority in all of Serbia within a few decades.

School Deputy Director Slobadon Amush(ph) says that's a possibility, but the real problem now is that negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo are going nowhere.

Mr. SLOBADON AMUSH (School Deputy Director): (Speaking foreign language) (Through translator): I think Albanians are much tougher than we are, and when they are unwilling to compromise, it puts us in a situation where we cannot give up our minimum requirement on Kosovo.

HARRIS: Many Serbs can't imagine an independent Kosovo. Serbian politicians of all persuasions publicly demand that Serbia keep the province. Nonetheless a pre-referendum poll found that fewer than a fifth of Serbs believe that Kosovo will realistically stay a part of Serbia.

Thirty-five-year-old Mamite Popovich(ph) has already said goodbye to Kosovo in a way, he was born there but fled during the NATO bombings. His father, Jarvan(ph), returned there last year.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

HARRIS: Mamite watches a video of a TV program that featured his father. The 68-year-old man is sitting in the shade, telling the camera that it's hard as a Serb to be back in Kosovo, but manageable. He said with the right conditions, the rest of his family might also like to return.

Jarvan Popovich was found dead in his home in Kosovo, shot through the neck, ten days after the program aired. His son says that changed everything.

Mr. MAMITE POPOVICH: (Speaking foreign language) (Through translation): I don't care now if Kosovo will be independent. As it's normally said, Kosovo is the cradle of civilization, and any Serb would normally want Kosovo to stay within Serbia. But now I don't if that's possible.

HARRIS: Still, he says, he's voting yes for the constitution because it keeps Kosovo.

Emily Harris NPR News, Belgrade.

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