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Serbo Journal

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Kosovo the big issue in Serbia referendum

BELGRADE The leaders of Serbia, normally riven by deep political rivalries, have shown a surprising degree of unity this month.

The country's ultranationalists and its advocates for change, who are more democratically minded, have joined to support a recently drafted constitution that will be voted on in a referendum Thursday and Friday.

The problem, according to critics, is that the draft constitution is deeply flawed and was drawn up more to prove politicians' credentials on the issue of Kosovo than to set the country on the course to a true democracy.

One of the most high-profile provisions of the draft says Kosovo is an "integral part" of Serbia.

The draft constitution will not have any effect on Kosovo's future, since the United Nations Security Council is expected to vote within the next several months on whether Kosovo can break away from Serbia. But the country's leaders see the provision as a way of assuring Serbians that they are doing everything they can to hold on to the province.

Many advocates of change in the legislature went along with the draft - although they dislike some of its undemocratic features - because they wanted to show support for keeping Kosovo. They fear that the UN vote will create a backlash that could lead to gains for the Serbian Radical Party, the leading nationalist party. They also agreed to rush through the drafting of the constitution so that it could be in place before the UN vote.

"This is the most important piece of paper that has been decided on in Serbia in years, yet it is being used for completely tactical reasons," said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity because he was not permitted to comment publicly on the matter.

The new constitution is intended to replace one drawn up in 1990 by the government of Slobodan Milosevic, the autocratic ruler who was removed in the 2000 Yugoslav presidential election by Vojislav Kostunica, who is now prime minister.

Kostunica, a moderate nationalist who favors the integration of Serbia with the European Union, has long promised a more reform-minded constitution. He supports the draft document and is touring the country promoting it. A government-financed campaign is also urging people to vote yes.

"Some provisions are revolutionary in a way," Kostunica said in a recent interview with Politika, a conservative newspaper in Belgrade.

But many politicians and constitutional experts say the new document in some cases turns back reforms passed since Milosevic left power. One area that is particularly worrisome for critics is the amount of power the government will have over the judiciary.

For instance, under the current constitution, Parliament has the final say on who becomes a judge, but an independent council of judges, the High Judicial Council, controls who is promoted to higher courts. Under the new system, Parliament will retain the power to name judges, but will also appoint the majority of the members of the council.

"All the protections of the judiciary enshrined in the constitution are put into question by the way the High Judicial Council is appointed," said Omer Hadzimerovic, a district court judge and the president of the bar association of Serbia. He also noted that the judiciary's funding was still going to be decided by the Finance Ministry.

Another area of concern is the amount of control the central government will have over local government leaders. The national government will be able to fire democratically elected local officials. The new constitution would also give it the power to name mayors to city assemblies, which are beholden to the country's major political parties. Since 2004, mayors have been elected.

The constitution would also spell out that amendments be made to international treaties signed by Serbia to ensure that they are in compliance with the document. That might derail Serbia's hopes for membership in the European Union.

In addition, Parliament would gain the right to dismiss the president with a two-thirds majority, although the president, largely a symbolic post, is elected by popular vote. That constitutional change, among others, has prompted accusations that Serbia's leading political parties are seeking to sustain the substantial powers garnered by Milosevic's Socialist Party, rather than to establish a state with complete separation of powers.

"We inherited this system from Milosevic and the Communists - this desire to have control over everything," said Goran Jesic, the mayor of Indija, near Belgrade, who will lose his job if the new constitution is approved.

Critics also say that the constitution is fundamentally undermined because Albanians - the majority in Kosovo - cannot vote on it.

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