Little change as Kosovo gets new constitution

PRISTINA (Reuters) – Kosovo’s first constitution as an independent state came into force on Sunday, giving ethnic Albanians the right to executive powers held by the United Nations mission that has run the territory since 1999.

But despite the document, the United Nations has not formally handed over its authority.

Kosovo is likely to remain under a patchwork of international oversight for several years. Its rule is also challenged by the Serb minority backed by Belgrade.

“This shows that Kosovo is a democratic country and has accepted and will respect the highest international values and standards,” Kosovo’s President Fatmir Sejdiu told reporters after signing 41 new laws accompanying the constitution.

Kosovo’s Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia on February 17 and has been recognized by some 40 countries. Serbia rejects its secession and wants more negotiations on its status.

“Serbia regards Kosovo as its own southern province, and is defending its integrity by peaceful means, through diplomacy, not force,” Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters.

Serbia lost control of Kosovo in June 1999 when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces to halt killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.

The two communities — some two million Albanians and 120,000 Serbs — have since lived separately, deeply suspicious and occasionally hostile to each other.

Kosovo Serbs living in areas that back onto Serbia protested against the independence declaration for weeks, but the tension has now given way to an uneasy peace.

Belgrade is moving ahead with its plan to govern and finance Kosovo Serbs, a concept it calls “functional division” but Albanians fear could lead to territorial partition.

“When the Kosovo anthem is played, its notes will not be heard in north Mitrovica or any areas where Serbs live,” the influential daily Koha Ditore wrote in an editorial. Security was increased in Serb areas on Sunday to prevent any violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested this week a “reconfiguration” of the U.N. mission in Kosovo that would allow the deployment of a European Union justice and police mission.

But Serbian ally Russia has blocked the handover, insisting the 27-member bloc has no mandate. The 2,200-strong EU mission, meant to operate alongside NATO’s 16,500 peacekeeping troops, will now likely face months of delays.

Until the West hammers out a compromise with Russia, or decides to go ahead without its approval, the U.N. mission will remain in place.

Diplomats say Italian Lamberto Zannier is tipped to replace Joachim Ruecker as the U.N. mission head after the German leaves Kosovo later this month.

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