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Update No: 158 - (25/07/10)

ICJ rules on Kosovar independence; it is legal
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague has ruled that Kosovo's independence, which it unilaterally declared in February 2008, is lawful. This decision, which is non-binding, was delivered on July 22.

A tiny patch of the Balkans with a population of two million, Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 after years of fruitless talks with Serbia about its desire to break away. NATO Belgrade lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after a bitter two-year war with the ethnic Albanians who make up the vast majority of Kosovo's population. Belgrade lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after a bitter two-year war with the ethnic Albanians who make up the vast majority of Kosovo's population. Belgrade lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after a bitter two-year war with the ethnic Albanians who make up the vast majority of Kosovo's population.

The area was then placed under U.N. administration. NATO peacekeeping troops continue to monitor the cease-fire. Kosovo has increasingly functioned as a separate state, with Pristina as its capital.

Issuing the non-binding advisory opinion, International Court of Justice President Hisashi Owada said international law contains "no ... prohibition of declarations of independence," and therefore Kosovo's declaration "did not violate general international law."

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the ruling as a historic victory." In Pristina, ethnic Albanians honked their horns and waved Kosovo and U.S. flags to celebrate the ruling.

Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo as a state and regards it as a Serbian province, had pushed for the ICJ to get involved and in October 2008 the United Nations agreed to ask the court for an advisory opinion.

Although non-binding, Serbia hoped the ruling would resurrect internationally- mediated talks on the status of Kosovo. Years of talks on the status of Kosovo - based on UN resolution 1244 from 1999 - ended without an agreement.

"We do expect that the court is not going to endorse the legality of the unilateral act of secession because if they do so, then no border anywhere in the world, anywhere where a secessionist ambition is harboured, will ever be safe," Serbia's foreign minister Vuk Jeremic told Deutsche Welle.

This expectation has been confounded; the ICJ has endorsed the legality of Kosovo's secession. This doubtless will have implications across the board; the Serbian FM is quite right.
The Serbian Prime Minister Boris Tadic naturally rejected the court's decision, saying that his country "would never recognize the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo."

Division of world opinion on the matter
Its declaration of independence divided international opinion, however. The U.S. and most of the European Union supported it, with the notable exception of Spain, which has battled its own separatist groups. Russia and China, which are also confronted with secessionist movements in places such as Chechnya and Tibet, opposed Kosovo's independence as well.
In all, 69 countries have recognized Kosovo's independence. The court's non-binding decision could spur further recognition of Kosovo.

The ruling also "could radically change the way we treat separatist groups in future," said James Ker-Lindsay, an analyst at the London School of Economics. "The floodgates could be opened for a whole raft of new states to emerge. No one wants to see this happen."

Ethnic tensions
Kosovo is home mainly to ethnic Albanians, with a small Serb minority. After the Kosovo War, in which Belgrade forcefully suppressed an ethnic Albanian insurgency, ethnic Serbs fled Kosovo and many still live in refugee camps in Serbia. Like the Serbian government, they are fiercely opposed to an independent Kosovo.

"It's very hard to think about it. Still now I can't believe that I'm not living in my own country anymore," Snezana Darmanovic, who lives in one of the camps in Pancevo just outside Belgrade, told Deutsche Welle.

"I feel like I'm a guest here. I still see Kosovo as a part of Serbia. Our roots and our hearts are there," she says.

Kosovo confident of ICJ ruling
Kosovo, meanwhile, was all along confident that the court would rule that independence complies with international law, making further talks about its status unnecessary.

"We will enter a new phase after this ruling, a phase of consolidation of our state," said Kosovo's Prime Minister Thaci. "In that next phase, we will push for the integration of Kosovo into NATO, the EU and the UN," he added.

Into the EU by 2015?
On 22 December 2009 Serbia itself formally submitted its application to join the EU. But Serbia is unlikely to join the EU until at least 2015.

Serbia's co-operation with the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague has been rewarded in recent months, despite Belgrade's failure to arrest the former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic. Serbia's arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in July 2008, after nearly 13 years on the run, drew EU praise for the pro-Western government in Belgrade.

On 7 December the EU unfroze an interim trade deal, which had been blocked for 18 months. The Dutch government had been demanding that Gen Mladic first be handed over to the tribunal.

And since 19 December citizens of Serbia and two other former Yugoslav republics - Macedonia and Montenegro - have enjoyed visa-free travel to the Schengen area, which includes most of the EU. The visa waiver applies to those who hold biometric passports.

Serbia signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in April 2008, but only in June 2010 did EU foreign ministers agree to put it into effect.

The Kosovar stumbling block
Belgrade's ties with the EU have been strained by Kosovo's declaration of independence - a declaration, as we have seen, recognised by most EU members and now the ICJ.

The EU wants to see better Serbian co-operation with its police and justice mission in Kosovo, called Eulex. Many Kosovo Serbs are reluctant to recognise the authority of Eulex.

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