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White House backs Kosovo ahead of court decision

Officials: Independence ‘irreversible’

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Obama administration is standing firmly in Kosovo's corner ahead of Thursday's International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision on the legality of its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hasim Thaci met Wednesday with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other adminsitration officials to discuss the upcoming decision, which comes nearly two years after the U.N. General Assembly referred the case to the ICJ at Serbia's behest.

Kosovo declared independence from Belgrade in February 2008, after nearly nine years of U.N. receivership that followed NATO's 1999 military intervention against the forces of then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

"The vice president reaffirmed the United States' full support for an independent, democratic, whole and multi-ethnic Kosovo whose future lies firmly within European and Euro-Atlantic institutions," the White House said in a statement. "The vice president also reiterated the United States' firm support for Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Two senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about a diplomatic issue elaborated upon the administration's position and expectations of the court and of the parties to the case.

"I think the critical part from our perspective is that we don't expect that it will change the political situation," said one of the officials. "We believe that the legal outcome will, in fact, affirm that the declaration is in accordance with international law. And it will remove obstacles and doubts that may have been raised about that question."

The Republic of Kosovo has been recognized by 69 U.N. member states, including the U.S. and most other Western nations. That number could grow considerably in a matter of days if the ICJ does not recognize Belgrade's claims on the breakaway republic.

Senior Serbian officials, including President Boris Tadic, have declared publicly in recent days that their country will never recognize an independent Kosovo.

"Recent indications from Belgrade suggest that, whatever opinion the Court renders tomorrow, Belgrade intends to continue its fight to retard Kosovo's progress, block further recognitions, challenge its existence as an independent state," a second senior administration offical noted.

But the official said that the U.S. intends to press ahead with efforts to help Kosovo gain membership in international institutions — the United Nations, the European Union, and ultimately NATO — while supporting negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade that hewed to certain basic principles.

"The position of the United States is very clear, and I believe it coincides with the views of the government of Kosovo - that while as neighboring countries there are, of course, many legitimate issues to be discussed between Pristina and Belgrade, neither the independence nor the status nor the territorial integrity of Kosovo are among those issues which should be on the table," said the second official. "Prime Minister Thaci has made it clear that those are red lines for him. We have also said that those are red lines for us."

The second official dismissed proposals for an ethnic realignment of Kosovo's borders, under which Serbia would lay claim to Serb-dominated areas in northern Kosovo, calling them "discredted ideas … that really just need to be put to bed once and for all."

"These are the very kinds of ideas that Slobodan Milosevic was pursing in the '90s, which got us into the terrrible situation in the Balkans in the first place," the official added. "Once you start rearranging boundaries in the Balkans, there's no telling where this would end. What happens to Bosnia? What happens to Macedonia? What happens to Serbia itself if everybody who is an ethnic minority starts claiming parts of Serbia? This is the Pandora's box that everyone fears in the Balkans."

The ICJ's president, Judge Hisashi Owada, is scheduled to read the ruling publicly in The Hague at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. EDT).

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