Court settles legal question of Kosovo independence, but not the political issue

The International Court of Justice in The Hague upheld Kosovo's declaration of independence. That will likely embolden separatist movements around the world. But after independence, then what? Recognition is a political, not a legal matter.

A ruling Thursday by the International Court of Justice upholding independence for tiny Kosovo in southeast Europe may well inspire separatist movements around the world.

Twirl a globe, and your head will spin at the number of groups that crave independence. Although the ruling is nonbinding, it is bound to give legal encouragement to Chechens, Kurds, Basques, Tibetans, and a host of other peoples from Africa to Asia seeking to break out on their own.

By virtue of that, the ruling by the United Nations court in The Hague is bound to cause great consternation and possibly conflict within countries trying to preserve their territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of resistant populations.

Those countries include international heavyweights such as China and Russia, smaller democracies such as Spain, Greece, and Romania, and regions like the Middle East, where many of the Kurds who live in multiple countries want to form a single “Kurdistan.”

The International Court found that because there is no international law preventing declarations of independence, Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 “did not violate general international law.”

But declaring independence and gaining recognition from the global community are two different things.

In wake of the court’s opinion, a pronouncement of independence might now have legal footing, but turning such a declaration into statehood is very much a political matter.

Will a newcomer to the global stage attract widespread recognition? How about foreign investment or loans from world financial institutions? Might it have the standing to join international treaties?

The answers to those questions should be “yes” in the case of Kosovo. This Balkans backwater, populated almost entirely by ethnic Albanians and once a part of the communist-era Yugoslavia, was pushed to declare independence two years ago by a history of violent suppression by Belgrade – seat of the Yugoslav, and later Serbia-only, governments.

As a result of “ethnic cleansing” directed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic, a Serb, Kosovo became a target of atrocities and fighting that finally caught the serious attention of the international community in 1998.

In March 1999, NATO began a bombing campaign that forced Yugoslav troops to retreat from Kosovo and halted a mass exodus of frightened Albanians. NATO took over security for the impoverished region.

UN attempts at a final settlement reached a stalemate. Serbs refused to give up Kosovo, which was the cradle of their civilization and home to a Serb minority in the north. And Kosovo Albanians refused anything less than independence.

The stalemate prevented Kosovo’s economic and political development, and after it finally went solo, Kosovo was recognized by 69 countries, including the United States and most countries in the European Union. Kosovo needs recognition by 100 countries to gain full statehood. Since Thursday’s ruling, the US has rightly urged other nations to now fall in line.

Ideally, people need to learn to live together, whether they come from different ethnicities, races, religions, or politics. Even with Kosovo’s independence bolstered, Albanians and Serbs would be much better off economically and politically if they found a way to heal their wounds.

But this is a slow process, and a political one. The International Court may have set a legal precedent today for those who want to declare independence. But after the declaring is over, there remains the politics of building a state, and learning to live with your neighbor and the global community at large.

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