Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Serbian constitution critic predicts weekend referendum will fail

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - The main critic of Serbia's new constitution predicted Wednesday that this weekend's referendum on the new charter will fail, and accused the authorities of pressuring the citizens to vote.

Cedomir Jovanovic, the leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, told the Associated Press that "there is no chance that the referendum will succeed."

The Oct. 28-29 referendum is necessary to confirm the new draft constitution which the Serbian parliament approved last month. More than half of Serbia's 6.6 million voters must turn out for the vote to be valid.

The new constitution defines Serbia as an independent state for the first time since 1918. It became necessity after Montenegro split from Serbia in June, following its own referendum on independence a month before.

But, Serbia's new constitution has sparked controversy because it declares U.N.-run province of Kosovo is an integral part of the republic, regardless of the outcome of ongoing international talks on the future status of the breakaway province.

Jovanovic and his liberal allies also have blasted the constitution because it was drawn hastily, with the support of the nationalists loyal to late ex-president Slobodan Milosevic.

"The way this constitution was passed was undemocratic," he said referring to lack of public discussion about the draft. "If they (authorities) haven't consulted us about this, I don't see why they would consult us about anything in the future."

Serbia's President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica have praised the constitution saying it presented a split with the era of ex-president Milosevic, and paved the way for Serbia's development after years of sanctions and international isolation.

Both have urged the citizens to turn out in large numbers on Saturday and Sunday.

In Pristina, U.S. envoy for Kosovo, Frank Wisner said Wednesday that the constitution will have no effect on the decision about the future status of the region, expected by the end of the year.

Jovanovic claimed that members of his campaign against the constitution have faced pressure and attacks similar to the era of the autocratic Milosevic, including beatings and bans on the gatherings by the anti-referendum groups.

On Tuesday, a group of Kosovo Serbs marched to Jovanovic's Belgrade party headquarters shouting insults and accusing him of treason because of his liberal policies.

Jovanovic also alleged that the citizens working in the state-run companies have been subjected to "enormous pressure" to vote in the referendum. But, he predicted the turnout will hover around 45 percent.

"The referendum cannot succeed without manipulation," he said, warning that the vote was illegal because it will be held on two days.

He added that "it only serves to help those in power remain in power."

If approved in the referendum, the new constitution will lead to early general elections, tentatively planned for mid-December.