Why Kosovar Independence Is Good For Serbia
Thursday’s court ruling could be a blessing in disguise for the Serbs.
Hashim Thaci had a very good day. The former rebel commander and current prime minister of Kosovo heard today that his country's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was legal. The International Court of Justice in The Hague, the most established world judicial institution, released its long-awaited ruling this morning, and the prime minister and his entourage watched the announcement live from Washington. At several points, according to a minister who was present, they broke into applause. More than a decade after NATO bombs released the mainly Albanian province from Serbia's grip, Kosovo is finally emerging from the legal limbo of being a United Nations protectorate guarded by NATO.
Hashim Thaci had a very good day. The former rebel commander and current prime minister of Kosovo heard today that his country’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was legal. The International Court of Justice in The Hague, the most established world judicial institution, released its long-awaited ruling this morning, and the prime minister and his entourage watched the announcement live from Washington. At several points, according to a minister who was present, they broke into applause. More than a decade after NATO bombs released the mainly Albanian province from Serbia’s grip, Kosovo is finally emerging from the legal limbo of being a United Nations protectorate guarded by NATO.
This afternoon, Thaci and his ministers celebrated the decision in the crowded lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. With security guards hovering nearby, they exchanged handshakes, took congratulatory calls, and checked in with officials monitoring the reaction at home. NATO peacekeepers had geared up for violence in the Serb-dominated areas of the province, but reports indicated that the decision was received calmly in Serb areas.
Thaci’s presence in Washington at this key moment was no accident.
While his ministers had some business to conduct at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the prime minister clearly relished being in the capital of his strongest backer when the ruling came down and the world’s eyes moved, however briefly, to his corner of the Balkans. He met yesterday with Vice President Joe Biden and attended a prayer breakfast this morning with Kosovo supporters on Capitol Hill.
The court’s 10-4 ruling that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence did not violate international law was a rare moment of intense scrutiny for the sleepy international court in The Hague, which some observers believe is fading into irrelevance. Few countries still accept the court’s jurisdiction in all cases. Its caseload is relatively light, and its primacy is being challenged by sleek new institutions like the International Criminal Court and the World Trade Organization, which has its own system for adjudicating trade disputes. Those cases the ICJ does get its hands on often sit for years before a final decision. The Bosnian suit alleging that Serbia had committed genocide stayed on the court’s docket for 13 years before being resolved. Sprightly the ICJ is not, and it was fitting that the court’s website crashed under the pressure of the hits it received today.
There was less at stake in the ICJ decision than it seemed. Kosovo is effectively independent, and no court decision was going to change that (the ruling was an advisory opinion without binding legal force, in any case). For all its anger, Serbia has no appetite to physically challenge Kosovo’s status. NATO troops still walk the beat in the disputed province, and Serbia has ambitions of joining the European Union, which would frown severely at any aggressive moves. In fact, most Serbian politicians probably breathed a quiet sigh of relief today. A decision questioning Kosovo’s independence would have forced them into a nationalist posture; now they will be able to move past an issue that’s been a continuing obstacle to joining the EU.
The decision mattered most in the recognition game. While more than 60 countries have recognized Kosovo, many were sitting on the fence, awaiting the ICJ’s decision. Today’s ruling will likely push many of them to forge relations with Kosovo, a development that will simplify its diplomatic, trade, and economic relations. "No country now has any reason not to recognize Kosovo," Thaci told me today. Nearby, his finance minister theatrically checked his email to see whether any recognition announcements had arrived.
The major question now is what effect the decision will have on those inclined to secessionism around the world. In their public statements before the court ruling, Serbia and its ally Russia often conjured up a parade of horribles that began with recognition of Kosovo’s independence and ended in a global frenzy of state fragmentation. That fear was always exaggerated, but the Kosovo decision might embolden a few separatists.
They would be wise not to push their luck. As Thaci’s presence in Washington attests, it was superpower brawn and not the force of international law that turned a rebel commander into a prime minister. Rebels without similarly strong friends will have less luck, whatever the judges in The Hague say.
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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