Update No: 151 -
Ten years on
The world was transfixed by events in the
Balkans just over a decade ago. At the
time in 1999, the Yugoslav government of
Slobodan Milosevic was attempting to
suppress an ethnic Albanian insurgency in
its southern province of Kosovo. The Serbs
hold a special regard for that particular
province. It was there that the Battle of
Blackbirds took place in 1389, when they
were overwhelmed by the Ottoman Turks, who
were to rule over them until 1878, when
they were liberated by the Russians.
Nato declared war on Yugoslavia, calling
the situation a humanitarian catastrophe.
An intensive 78-day aerial bombing
campaign followed until Milosevic withdrew
his troops; but only when the Russians,
their traditional allies requested them
to. The territory was placed under United
Nine years later, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian
majority unilaterally declared
independence from what is now Serbia,
despite failing to obtain a UN Security
Council resolution authorising the move.
Russia had threatened to veto it, united
in opposition with its Orthodox ally,
Serbia. A modest wave of recognitions of
Kosovo followed, led by the United States.
Serbia cried foul, calling the secession
illegal. Furious Serb protesters set the
US embassy in Belgrade alight. As the
flames died down, the new government of
Boris Tadic vowed to fight on, calling for
the International Court of Justice (ICJ)
in the Hague to examine the matter.
Now, the hearings are beginning in the
first ever case of territorial secession
brought before the ICJ. Thirty countries
will present their various arguments. The
issue appears straightforward: did
Kosovo's declaration of independence
comply with international law?
But the discussions will be complex, with
both sides engaging in a tug-of-war over
the legal minutiae. Serbia is likely to
say that UN Resolution 1244, which ended
the Kosovan war, reaffirmed the
territorial integrity of the then
Yugoslavia, maintaining Belgrade's
jurisdiction over its southern province.
It is thought the Kosovan side will argue
that the resolution did not expressly
prohibit secession and that human rights
abuses committed in Kosovo by Milosevic's
government gave the province the right to
The verdict, after months of deliberation,
will be advisory, not legally binding. So
what is the point of it all, one might
Most people within the international
community - many even in Serbia - now
believe that turning back the clock and
annulling independence is unrealistic.
"This isn't about reintegrating Kosovo
within Serbia," says Mr Tadic. "This isn't
about the independence of Kosovo. It is
about starting from a blank page to talk
with good will to find a sustainable,
So Serbia is ready to return to the
negotiating table. The problem is that
Kosovo believes there's nothing to
negotiate about. Pristina says it is
independent and that's final.
"The history of the Balkans is all about
fragmentation and partition. We've
suffered a lot through that," adds Mr
Tadic, referring to the break-up of
Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the wars that
"That's why we must find a totally
That conciliatory tone is part of the new
attitude that the Serbian government is
trying to present over Kosovo. "We're no
longer part of the problem", says Mr Tadic.
"We're part of the solution."
The reason is clear: Serbia is desperate
to get on the path to European Union
membership. Brussels says it won't require
Belgrade to recognise Kosovo - "something
we will never do," says the president -
but has demanded greater cooperation
between the two if membership is to be
And so Mr Tadic faces a difficult
balancing act: placating Serbia's
right-wing, still angry over Kosovan
independence, while showing a
"softly-softly" approach for Brussels.
On the streets of Belgrade, Kosovo elicits
mixed emotions. Many now feel resigned to
the status quo.
"It's still the heart and soul of our
nation," says one Serb patriot. "But I
don't think we can change things. Far more
powerful forces are pulling the strings."
Says another: "What's happened is tragic,
but my priority now is that Serbia joins
the EU and that people move on."
Bojan, a sports science student, calls
Kosovan independence "a criminal act."
"People who did it in Kosovo can do it in
Spain, in Russia - anywhere that a part of
a country wants to break away", he warns.
And that is why the Kosovo issue still
matters to the wider world: numerous
governments face similar challenges to
their authority as that of Serbia.
Countries from Nigeria to Georgia and
Cyprus to China, have refused to recognise
Kosovan independence for fear of fanning
secessionist flames within their borders.
And so they - and their separatist
movements - will be watching this ICJ case
very closely indeed to see whether the
decision might affect what happens in
their own backyards.
Breakthrough in Brussels
European Union foreign ministers say they
will no longer block a trade agreement and
closer ties with Serbia.
The decision came after the Netherlands
lifted its opposition to closer EU ties,
ending an 18-month standoff. The Dutch
government had been blocking an interim
trade deal, demanding that Serbia do more
to track down fugitive Balkans war crimes
But the breakthrough removes a major
obstacle to Serbia applying for full
membership of the EU, analysts say.
Serbia's EU-accession hopes have been
dogged by its failure to arrest the
Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect, General
Ratko Mladic. The Netherlands had been
blocking an interim trade deal because it
wants Gen Mladic handed over to the
International Criminal Tribunal for the
former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
But in December the UN's chief war crimes
prosecutor said Serbia's co-operation with
the ICTY was "progressing".