PRISTINA (AFP) — Kosovo's constitution entered into force Sunday, four months after it split from Serbia, opening the way for majority Albanians take over from a nine-year-old UN mission under European guidance.
President Fatmir Sejdiu marked the imposition of the newly independent state's first charter by signing a set of laws for the first time, in the presence of European Union special representative Peter Feith.
"The coming into force today of the constitution marks the completion of the cycle of building the state," said Sejdiu.
"The constitution is the main compass ... which will present the main orientation for our path," the president said, adding it would help Kosovo with its EU and NATO integration.
"Adopting the constitution represents the second historic moment for Kosovo after the proclamation of independence" from Serbia on February 17, said Sejdiu.
But responding to the move, Belgrade, which still regards Kosovo as an integral part of its territory and medieval heartland, said it considered the constitution as illegal and dangerous.
"Serbia does not accept the proclamation of Kosovo's constitution as a legal fact," President Boris Tadic told reporters in the Serbian capital, adding the move was "a political event with ... harmful consequences."
UN chief Ban Ki-moon this week gave Sejdiu and Tadic his plans to restructure the UN mission in Kosovo -- UNMIK -- by transferring many of its powers to local institutions and the European Union.
The power shake-up is based on a blueprint for Kosovo's "supervised independence" put forth by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, after status talks between Kosovo Albanian and Serbian leaders collapsed at the end of 2006.
The constitution, unanimously approved by Kosovo's parliament on April 9, paves the way for the introduction of EULEX, a 2,000-strong European Union police and justice mission.
In line with the Ahtisaari settlement, it enshrines principles of a multi-ethnic society governing itself democratically with full respect for the rule of law and international human rights standards.
As part of moves to implement the charter, Kosovo this week passed laws on a national anthem and the creation of a security force to be trained by NATO, which still has 15,000 troops in the volatile territory.
According to the law, the force of 2,500 will be professional, multi-ethnic, civilian-controlled and possess no heavy weapons.
But it remains unclear how the constitution will be imposed in areas populated by Serbs, particularly in the ethnically divided northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica, where violence has repeatedly flared since independence.
In the latest clash at the weekend, a police officer and a man suffered wounds during a gun battle in the southern Albanian-populated half of the flashpoint town.
"For Albanians, (the constitution) probably means something, but for Serbs, it (means) absolutely nothing," Oliver Ivanovic, a moderate Kosovo Serb leader, said on Sunday.
"It has lessened the possibility that Serbs and Albanians converge in the future.
"Serbs will be more inclined to turn to their parallel institutions, which could lead to more conflict," said Ivanovic, expressing regret at the lost opportunity for a settlement agreed by both sides.
UNMIK has run Kosovo since 1999, when NATO forces took control of it after ousting forces loyal to late autocratic Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
The independence of Kosovo, whose Albanians outnumber Serbs and other minorities by more than nine-to-one, has been recognised by around 40 nations including the United States and most EU members.
But Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, effectively blocked UN approval of the Ahtisaari plan before the UN Security Council where it is a veto-wielding permanent member.
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