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.

Hazir Reka/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

After the ruling, European Union foreign affairs chief Lady Catherine Ashton said the future of both Kosovo and Serbia lay in Europe, which is interpreted as a political salve to a legal opinion that did not favor Belgrade.

Serbia disappointed

Ljubica Gojgic, senior political analyst for Belgrade’s B92 news service, found the ruling “very disappointing."

"I’m amazed....that the court based its ruling on the ‘representatives' of the Kosovo people. This deteriorates the credibility and independence of the court....T hey obviously didn’t have the strength to resist the pressure they were under,” he says.

In Kosovo’s capital Pristina, the ruling was received with some delight. Agron Bajrami, chief editor of the daily Koha Ditore, says, “This was unexpected. We were expecting something very ambiguous, but the wording is clear. It’s a good development that will open a new phase for recognition and positive movement.”

Whether by coincidence or not, a former prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, exonerated by the UN war crimes tribunal at the Hague, was apprehended Wednesday and will be re-tried by the UN court on six counts of murder and torture. The tribunal says witnesses in Mr. Haradinaj’s original case were threatened. The arrest will change the political landscape in Kosovo, as Haradinaj has been gaining ground as the principal opponent of Mr. Thaci.

Kosovo is devoutly remembered by Serbs as the scene of an epic struggle between Serb Prince Lazar and the Ottomans in 1389, in which the Serb side lost heroically; many of Serbia’s most treasured churches are located in Kosovo. The state is bordered by Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania, and for much of history was so sequestered that a Bulgarian geographer called it “almost as unknown and inaccessible as a stretch of land as Central Africa.” While its Albanian roots are disputed by Belgrade, British scholar Noel Malcolm describes the Albanian presence there as one of the oldest in Europe.

After the UN court decision, Russia’s response will be watched closely. While Moscow had originally decried Western arguments for Kosovo independence, it appeared to jettison those arguments after backing the right of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to declared independence in the weeks after the 2008 war in Georgia.

Kosovo has largely been peaceful since 2008, with few outright clashes between Serbs and Albanians. Most Serbs live or have moved to the town of Mitrovica in the north, an area contiguous with Serbia. The legal and political disposition of Mitrovica remains unresolved.

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