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Kosovo independence legal, says UN court. What will Russia do?

Kosovo's independence declaration in 2008 is legit, says the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But the ruling may create a precedent for separatist movements worldwide. Russia opposed Kosovo's independence.

By Staff writer / July 22, 2010

Passengers wave the US, Kosovo and British flags as they celebrate in capital Pristina after the World Court said Kosovo's declaration of independence was legal, July 22.

Hazir Reka/Reuters

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Paris

Tiny Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence was ruled legal today by the highest UN court – bringing clarity to a question long mired in strategic, moral, and emotional disputes.

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But the non-binding decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), one of the first rulings on changing borders in modern times, may have messy political ramifications worldwide, analysts say.

The Hague judges said the ruling narrowly applied to Kosovo. Court president Hisashi Owada said international law contains no "prohibition on declarations of independence." But the court’s broader questioning of notions of “territorial integrity” may open a Pandora’s box, giving heart to many non-state actors around the globe seeking to secede or declare independence.

Mark Ellis, director of the International Bar Association in London says that, “By saying that Kosovo did not violate the privilege of ‘territorial integrity,’ the court creates a more vexing challenge for international law, affecting future decisions involving non-state actors living in states.”

On Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo – 93 percent Albanian, but a heartland of Serbian mythic and religious identity – declared independence, strongly supported by the US and most European states.

Serbia disputed the claim – even as Kosovo became a de facto independent state after Serb forces were driven out by NATO following a failed mass “ethnic cleansing” campaign by Belgrade in 1999. That campaign is seen as part of a attempt by Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic to create a “Greater Serbia” by killing and forced relocation of non-Serbs -- that itself began with speeches by Mr. Milosevic in Kosovo in 1988.

On Wednesday, US Vice President Joseph Biden met with Kosovo President Hashim Thaci to affirm continued US support of Kosovo regardless of the outcome of the court ruling – continuing a US policy of rebuilding the Balkans. The US State Department has steadily said it backs Kosovo independence as an exceptional case, and not a precedent.

Some 69 nations recognize Kosovo, now under international protection, which is short of the 100 required for UN membership. China, Russia, and European states like Greece, Spain, and Italy have not recognized Kosovo's independence, citing separatists within their own borders.

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