Serbia Prepares a New Case Over Kosovo

BELGRADE – Serbia is preparing to go before the United Nations next month to renew negotiations over the future of Kosovo, its southern breakaway province that has declared independence and been recognized by a number of countries.

Serbia is planning its next steps after it was clearly taken aback with the decision Jul. 22 by the top United Nations (UN) legal body, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo from Serbia back in 2008 was within international law. 

"The court considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declaration of independence," Judge Hisashi Owada, president of the ICJ, said in his ruling. "Accordingly it concludes that the declaration of independence of the 17th of February 2008 did not violate general international law." 

The decision is non-binding and only an advisory opinion. 

"This was a very hard decision for Serbia," Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters. "But Serbia will continue its battle for the status of Kosovo with peaceful, diplomatic means." He added: "Serbia will never recognize the independence of Kosovo." 

A vital issue is the status of about 100,000 Serbs in Kosovo. They are loyal to Belgrade, and in the north of the province and in several enclaves they do not recognize Pristina and its authority. 

Serbia will need the backing of allies such as Russia and China, and nations under their influence. It is also sending envoys to 55 nations with a letter from Tadic, seeking support for Serbia’s new effort in the UN General Assembly. 

So far, 69 nations, including 22 members of the European Union and the U.S. have recognized the independence of Kosovo. 

Serbia had taken the issue of unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo to the ICJ last year, believing that the court’s advisory opinion will back its claim that such a move was contrary to international law. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 after being under UN administration since June 1999. 

The ICJ ruled that Serbia lost its jurisdiction over Kosovo with the introduction of the UN administration. 

The UN administration was introduced after 11 weeks of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing of Serbia due to Belgrade’s repression against two million Kosovo Albanians. Under the regime of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, Belgrade put an end to decades of broad autonomy for Kosovo Albanians in 1990 and introduced direct rule in the province, where minority Serbs led all institutions. 

Calls for renewal of autonomy by ethnic Albanians were rejected. This led to armed rebellion by Kosovan Albanian groups, followed by stern Serbian repression in 1998 and 1999. International response came by way of 11 weeks of NATO bombing of Serbian installations. 

Kosovo is important for Serbia because the first medieval Serbian state was created there, and because it is the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church. But over the centuries the ethnic structure has changed, and few Serbs remain in Kosovo now. 

"The court has elegantly avoided definition of the line between the right to self-determination and the declaration of independence which is not illegal per se; it also did not tackle the issue of territorial integrity that Serbia insists upon," professor of international law Vojin Dimitrijevic told IPS. "This is a precedent, as each and every movement strong enough can go down such a road (as Kosovo) — and there are dozens of separatist movements abroad." 

And almost immediately, Serb officials in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina declared that the Serb part of Bosnia can now vote itself out of the country consisting of Serb and Muslim-Croat entities. 

Milosevic-era opposition leader Vuk Draskovic has called for realism. "The court has clearly put national and human rights above authority and sovereignty, and that should be a strong basis for Serbia’s demands for historic and national monuments’ protection in Kosovo," Draskovic told Belgrade B92 Radio. "Serbs in Kosovo can now be a protected minority, economically and in many other ways connected to their motherland Serbia, and search for reconciliation with their (ethnic) Albanian neighbors." 

A Serbian diplomat who insisted on anonymity said the new move in the UN would call for broad autonomy for Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo and in scattered enclaves around Orthodox monasteries in the province, with provision of special ties to Belgrade. 

"We are led by the principle that one side should not get everything (Kosovo) and the other (Serbia) lose everything after the ICJ ruling," he said. 

The diplomat declined to comment on demands in nationalist media for partition of Kosovo into Serbian (north) and Albanian areas. "That is wishful thinking by some, but it is not realistic."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Vesna Peric Zimonjic

Vesna Peric Zimonjic writes for Inter Press Service.