Kosovars celebrate the ICJ ruling of the legality of independence declaration as they take pictures at the “Newborn” obelisk in the capital Pristina on Thursday. The United Nations’ highest court said Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia did not break international law. Image Credit: AP

The International Court of Justice has made a ruling regarding the status of Kosovo that will most likely have implications for separatists around the world, as well as for Serbia's European Union membership aspirations.

The non-binding advisory ruling that Kosovo's unilateral secession from Belgrade in February 2008 was legal brought back bitter memories of Balkanisation in a troubled region poisoned with suspicion and ethnic cleansing.

Ordinary Serbs see Kosovo as their spiritual heartland and the cradle of their proud heritage, dating back to when it was part of the Serbian kingdom in the early 13th century.

Numerous orthodox churches and monasteries, burned in the aftermath of the Kosovo War in 1999, were built during the Nemanjic dynasty, before the breakout of the famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389 resulted in the defeat of Serbs at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, many Serbs were forced to flee the region.

As is the case for many parts of the Balkans, the demographics in Kosovo have changed dramatically in the past six centuries, with Albanian migrations continuing steadily since the Ottomans took control.

The terrible mistakes committed during the nineties by the late Serbian chauvinist president Slobodan Milosevic made things worse and led to more ethnic hostility. The Kosovo War left almost one million Kosovars displaced, 800,000 of whom were Albanians.

As a result of the International Court of Justice's ruling, fears have overshadowed Belgrade's normally sunny sky, as fungi cover the ground in the cold darkness of its beautiful forests. The concern is that this decision will see more countries join the 69 that already recognise Kosovo's independence.

However, the ruling won't change the stance of some European Union states that refuse to recognise the independence of Kosovo, such as Greece, Cyprus or Spain. The Spanish government will now have to keep a close eye on the Basques and Catalans who seek greater autonomy or even independence from Madrid, and will have been emboldened. Turkish Cypriots are also celebrating and will keep pushing for recognition of their de facto northern Cyprus state.

Common problem

Russia and Ukraine are also threatened by secessionism. In the former Yugoslavia, Republika Srpska, one of the two main political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is eager for independence or else union with Serbia. The Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea also harbours separatist elements, while Moscow is still concerned about pro-independence sentiments in Chechnya and Dagestan.

The ruling on Kosovo would also have sent shockwaves through Asia, with China no doubt concerned that the verdict might encourage Taiwan, no stranger to dollar diplomacy, to seek recognition from many more countries as a sovereign state.

For Serbs, the message from the international community is clear: Abandon your claims to Kosovo or forget about joining the European Union. Brussels will no doubt adopt a carrot and stick approach to Belgrade, while at the same time undertaking a parallel dialogue process with Pristina. A country plagued by wars and sanctions, Serbia is eager to attract foreign investment in its mismanaged economy, where unemployment runs at 18 per cent.

Belgrade could try to stubbornly hang on to the breakaway territory for a while, but it will ultimately find itself besieged by pressure from the West. In addition, it must consider the 120,000 Serbs who remain in Kosovo, concentrated near the Serbian border, which compel it to undertake direct negotiations with Pristina.

Placing a minority in jeopardy would set alarm bells ringing in the Balkan again, with inevitable negative consequences for Serbia's fading hopes to become a welcome member of the new Europe.

Rauf Baker is a Dubai-based journalist who specialises in Eastern European Affairs.