- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tensions flared anew in the Balkans on Thursday, with Kosovo declaring victory and Serbia pledging to fight on after the International Court of Justice ruled that the breakaway republic’s 2008 secession did not violate international law.

As NATO deployed more peacekeeping forces to an ethnic flash point in northern Kosovo, the European Union offered to mediate between Kosovo and Serbia, to resolve outstanding disagreements.

But barely a decade after the war that ravaged the region, officials from Kosovo and Serbia showed few signs of a coming rapprochement.

“The court today gave the right answer,” Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told The Washington Times hours after the court’s announcement, adding that now “no country in the world has reason to delay the decision to recognize the independence of Kosovo.”

The court’s opinion sent shock waves through Belgrade, which had staked much on the outcome. It was at Serbia’s behest that the U.N. General Assembly referred the Kosovo question to the International Court of Justice in October 2008.

President Boris Tadic acknowledged that the court’s opinion was “difficult for Serbia,” but pledged to continue his country’s diplomatic struggle to bring the breakaway province back into its orbit.

Serbia will never recognize the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo,” he said Thursday, “since we believe that unilateral and ethnically motivated secession is not in line with U.N. principles.”

The court’s “advisory opinion,” while officially nonbinding, likely will have far-reaching implications for Kosovo’s quest for global recognition, including membership in international institutions.

Before Thursday, the Republic of Kosovo had been recognized against Serbia’s will by 69 U.N. member states - including the United States and most other Western nations - and that number was expected to grow over the coming weeks.

In its 10-4 opinion, the International Court of Justice defied widespread predictions of an ambiguous outcome when it issued a full-throated legal endorsement of Kosovo’s right to secession.

“The court considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition on declarations of independence,” said the court’s president, Judge Hisashi Owada, reading the opinion aloud.

“Accordingly, it concludes that the declaration of independence of the 17th of February 2008 did not violate general international law.”

The Obama administration, which had filed a court brief on Kosovo’s behalf, welcomed the court’s opinion.

“We call on all states to move beyond the issue of Kosovo’s status and engage constructively in support of peace and stability in the Balkans,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement. “And we call on those states that have not yet done so to recognize Kosovo.”

Mr. Thaci appealed “in particular [to] our European friends in Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus,” referring to the only five such holdouts in the 27-member European Union.

Kosovo is the seventh state to emerge from the rubble of the former Yugoslavia. Its formal secession from Serbia ended nearly nine years of U.N. receivership, which followed NATO’s 1999 intervention to protect the territory’s mostly ethnic-Albanian population from the forces of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

The ethnic bloodshed that plagued the Balkans throughout the ‘90s has been minimal in recent years, but NATO’s 10,000-strong Kosovo Force (KFOR) increased its troop strength Thursday in the Serb-controlled part of Mitrovica, the ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo. Earlier this month, Mitrovica was the site of a deadly bomb blast at a Serb political rally and the shooting of a Serb member of Kosovo’s parliament.

“KFOR will continue to implement its mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment in an impartial manner throughout Kosovo, for the benefit of all communities, majority and minority alike,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.

EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Thursday that Brussels was “ready to facilitate a process of dialogue between Pristina [Kosovo] and Belgrade,” adding that the future of both nations “lies in the European Union.”

Mr. Thaci said in his interview that “the next step” for Kosovo would be to attain membership in NATO, the EU and the U.N.

He appealed to the leaders of Serbia, who have been seeking EU membership, to consider the ramifications of failing to recognize Kosovo.

“We are ready to recognize Serbia, and I hope in the near future Serbia will change its position and recognize the independence of Kosovo, too,” he said, “because the only way for Serbia to be part of the EU is to recognize the independence of Kosovo.”

But Serbian officials said that they would accept an outcome reached only through negotiations with Pristina.

“Everything is on the table as far as we’re concerned,” Serbia’s ambassador to the United States, Vladimir Petrovic, told The Washington Times. “We don’t have any preconditions to sit down and talk about the final solution.”

Mr. Thaci, however, has said that Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity are not negotiable. Rejecting suggestions for an ethnic realignment of Kosovo’s borders, he insisted that minorities throughout Kosovo have nothing to fear. “I want to assure all communities living in Kosovo - and in particular, the Serb citizens - that Kosovo is their home, too.”