Serbia Loses International Court Appeal Against Kosovo's Independence -- in Verdict that Backs U.S. and European Stance     Print

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled Thursday that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 does not violate any international law.

The verdict – that the step was legal – is a victory for U.S. and European policies and actions that led to Kosovo’s independence. This outcome has never been accepted by Russia or by Serbia, whose foreign minister reacted immediately with a vow that Belgrade would “never” recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.

But the non-binding ruling will put new pressure on the wait-and-see policies of countries, including a few EU member states, which have not recognized Kosovo pending the outcome of the ICJ case.

Although the ICJ’s decision is not binding, it closes the political parenthesis that was open as long as the legal challenge was pending. Kosovo’s own Prime Minister Hashim Thaci travelled to the U.S. this week to meet with Vice-President Joe Biden, in order to display his nation’s friendly relations with the powerful, pro-Kosovar, western country. Thaci wanted to be in American presence when the ICJ opinion was read, hoping to highlight such an important time for Kosovar foreign affairs.

The U.S. and its key European allies have pressed hard for independence and for the conclusion of this issue across the Balkans. A NATO military offensive forced Belgrade to withdraw its forces from Kosovo in 1999, a campaign that was controversial because it was not endorsed by the UN Security Council. In the aftermath of the conflict, torturous negotiations lasted four years within the Contact Group (including the U.S., U.K, Germany, France, Russia and Italy), and these ultimately resulted in the declaration of independence by the Kosovars who formed a new government in Pristina.

Serbia, backed by Russia, opposed this outcome and, as part of its resistance strategy, appealed the case to the ICJ in The Hague. As long as the case remained open, there was political space for Belgrade (and other EU states) to postpone any final decision about Kosovo’s status.

Now, Belgrade will be faced with new pressure from the EU to come to terms with Kosovo’s independence as a condition for moving ahead in Serbia’s efforts to join the EU. Europeans are eager to welcome Serbia into the EU as a step toward Balkan stability, but the resolution of the Kosovo issue is a precondition for Serbian membership.

Only a small minority of EU countries has yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence; but in light of the ICJ ruling, these countries will now be pressured to decide whether or not to acknowledge the legitimacy of Kosovo’s statehood. Although the main EU nations, including France, Britain and Germany have recognized Kosovo, some have not. Facing their own separatist and sovereignty issues, Spain, Slovakia, and Romania, as well as Greece and Cyprus, fear that the Kosovo example could become a precedent. Spain is worried about Basques and other minorities; and Slovakia has a small Hungarian population that has made moves towards secession.

And Serbia, so strongly opposed to losing the Kosovar territory, must now decide whether European integration is more important than the independence of Kosovo. In the wake of the pro-statehood ICJ ruling, Serbia must choose between the opportunities offered by joining the EU, or remaining closely connected with its Eastern ties, most notably with Russia, who has supported Belgrade’s opposition to independence for Kosovo.

Meghan Kelly