Kosovo Serb villager votes in referendum for new Serb constitution
Visar Kryeziu  /  AP
In the village of Gracanica, a Kosovo Serb villager votes in Sunday's referendum for the new Serb constitution.
updated 10/29/2006 8:51:30 PM ET 2006-10-30T01:51:30

Serbia’s top leaders said Sunday that voters approved a new constitution reasserting Serbia’s claim over the U.N.-administered Kosovo province, a predominantly ethnic Albanian region whose status is the focus of international negotiations.

Election officials and an independent commission also predicted the charter’s adoption, based on early returns from the weekend referendum. But official results were not expected until Monday.

Serbia’s opposition Liberal Party charged there was “massive fraud” at polling stations in the final hours of voting, with people allegedly voting several times and without identification papers.

Western diplomats had already warned that only the international talks can decide the future of Kosovo, which ethnic Albanians want to be independent. But Serbian politicians hope the new charter will bolster their bargaining position. Ethnic Serbs consider Kosovo the historic and cultural heartland of their nation.

Independence-seeking ethnic Albanians form 90 percent of the population in Kosovo, which has been under U.N. administration since U.S.-led NATO air strikes halted a Serb crackdown on the separatists in 1999.

The need for a new constitution arose in June after Montenegro — Serbia’s last partner from the former Yugoslav federation — declared independence and left Serbia on its own for the first time since 1918.

Yes vote needed from over 50 percent
To win adoption, the charter needed to get “yes” votes from more than 50 percent of Serbia’s 6.6 million registered voters and a majority of registered voters also had to cast ballots to make the referendum valid.

The Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy, an independent monitoring group, said its surveys indicated both thresholds were met. It put turnout at 53.3 percent and said its sample counts at polls indicated 96 percent of ballots favored the new charter.

State referendum authorities announced similar results, saying 96 percent voted in favor of the new charter — based on just under 11 percent of ballots counted — and estimated turnout at 53.6 percent.

Those figures would produce a “yes” vote of just over 51 percent of all registered voters.

Serbia’s conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and pro-Western President Boris Tadic both proclaimed victory for the constitution.

“This is a great moment for Serbia,” Kostunica told Serbian state television. “This is a historic moment, a beginning of a new era.”

Milosevic legacy fades
Tadic said a “huge job is now behind us.” He said the “best thing about this constitution is that we now leave behind us” the charter adopted during the regime of the late autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Kostunica said the turnout was “adequate, considering that opponents chose to boycott the vote” rather than cast “no” votes. “We have reasons to be very happy.”

The referendum was strongly condemned by ethnic Albanians, who have long boycotted any ballot under Serb auspices and were not listed on the voter rolls, purportedly for that reason.

Some government opponents and nongovernment organizations also criticized the charter as hastily drafted and flawed on issues such as independence of the judiciary, equal rights for minorities and autonomy for local governments.

Big turnout at the end
In Serbia’s northern Vojvodina province, where turnout was very low, provincial assembly speaker Bojan Kostres accused authorities of “forcing the new constitution” on the people.

“The final voting hours were very strange, with a sudden, steep rise in turnout,” Kostres said.

For many Serbs, the charter’s key point was its declaration that Kosovo is an “integral part of Serbia.”

Serbs in Kosovo began celebrating even before official results were announced. Hundreds gathered Sunday night in Kosovska Mitrovica, waving banners, cheering and shouting “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” as NATO peacekeepers watched and dispatched reinforcements to the scene.

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