Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 was ruled legal by the International Court of Justice yesterday. The non-binding, majority opinion of the 15 judges sitting on the United Nations' highest court in The Hague could have ramifications for separatist movements seeking independence across the world.
Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, has already warned that a ruling in favour of Kosovan statehood would "trigger a process that would create several new countries and destabilise numerous regions in the world". However, yesterday's judgment focused purely on Kosovo's declaration of independence and not on the legality of its secession - a deliberate move by the court, apparently, to avoid setting a precedent to other, would-be breakaway regions.
There was obvious delight in Kosovo at the ruling with Skender Hyseni, Kosovo's foreign minister, describing it as "a great day" for the country. He added: "My message to the government of Serbia is: 'Come and talk to us'." Serbia's representatives had argued before the court that the declaration of independence both challenged its sovereignty and undermined international law. But Hisashi Owada, the president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said that international law "contains no applicable prohibition on declarations of independence".
He added: "Accordingly, [the court] concludes that the declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 did not violate general international law." Ten of the ICJ's judges supported the opinion; four opposed it and one abstained. Kosovo, where about 90 per cent of the two million population is ethnic Albanian but where there is a sizeable Serbian minority particularly in the north of the country, seceded from Serbia in February 2008 after almost a decade of international administration following a bloody 1998-99 war. The war left an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians dead after a brutal crackdown by Serb forces. Hundreds of Serbs were killed in reprisal attacks before the war was ended by a 78-day Nato bombing campaign.
Led by the United States, almost 70 nations have so far recognised Kosovo, including most members of the European Union. However, Greece and Spain, which have separatist problems of their own, both opposed independence, along with Russia, China and many others. Moscow, a traditional ally of Serbia and facing a separatist movement in Chechnya, had demanded that Kosovo's independence be annulled. Now, though, the ICJ's ruling could lead to other nations recognising Kosovo, though it will take a minimum of 100 for it to be admitted to the UN.
Since hearings began last December, the court has heard arguments from almost 30 countries. Serbia itself claimed that Kosovo had been an integral part of its civilisation since the 14th century. Vuk Jeremic, Serbia's foreign minister who travelled to The Hague for yesterday's ruling, warned beforehand that Belgrade would not give up its claim on Kosovo whatever the ICJ decided. "Serbia will not change its position regarding Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence and necessity of a compromise," he said. "Our fight for such a solution will probably be long and difficult, but we will not give up."
Despite Serbian opposition to the ruling, the hope is that it will pave the way for a dialogue between Belsgrade and Pristina on how the two nations might form a working relationship. Pressure on Belgrade to enter talks will come from the EU, which Serbia is anxious to join, while Kosovo will hope that the ruling will enhance its appeal to foreign investors and resolve the conflict in the north where tensions between ethnic Serbs and Albanians remain high.
"All eyes will be on what Serbia does now," said a senior diplomat in London last night. "They could take retaliatory measures in, say, the form of a trade embargo. Or they could go down the diplomatic route and try to get the matter raised again at the UN, via Russia. "The hope, of course, must be that after the obligatory period of hand wringing and fist shaking, a constructive dialogue will be fashioned. But nothing is ever easy in the Balkans."
In a statement following the ruling, the US State Department said: "The ICJ ruling strongly asserts that Kosovo's declaration of independence is legal, a judgment we support. Now it is time for Europe to unite behind a common future." A spokesman said that, shortly before the verdict, Joe Biden, the US vice president, had telephoned President Tadic to emphasise America's "unwavering commitment to Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity".
Mr Biden call on the Serbian government "to work constructively to resolve practical issues with Kosovo to improve the lives of the people of Kosovo, Serbia, and of the region". EU foreign ministers will meet on Monday to respond to the ICJ ruling. Their aim will undoubtedly be to encourage greater co-operation between Belgrade and Pristina on a range of practical issues. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org