Kosovo: the UN court has spoken, let the dialogue begin

The Balkans are the next chapter in a quintessentially European story about competing claims for identity, sovereignty, and independence; and the European Union (backed by the United States) has a key role to play in it
Ivan Vejvoda
23 August 2010

1999, 2010: these dates mark history in the Balkans. Eleven years ago, NATO waged an air war against Serbia over the treatment of Serbia’s southernmost province. Since then, the longstanding dispute over the status of Kosovo has been conducted through diplomatic and legal wrangling instead. On July 22, the highest court in the UN system, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 did not violate international law. As Winston Churchill inimitably said: “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” But the rulings of the International Court in The Hague are non-binding. So what happens now?

The ICJ’s advisory opinion was hailed as a political victory in Kosovo, and by the 69 countries that have to date recognized its independence (they include 22 of the 27 member states of the European Union). In Belgrade (whose government had asked the court for its opinion), President Boris Tadic admitted that this was a “heavy blow” to Serbia. Some Belgrade newspaper columns talked of a “new defeat for Serbia.”

In truth, the ICJ’s ruling is less unambiguous than it seems, and not just because 4 of the 14 judges on the bench dissented. In examining the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the court was helped by Serbia’s narrow framing of the question, which enabled the judges to avoid the key issue of whether Kosovo actually had the right to secede.

The political reality, nonetheless, is that the approximately 2 million Albanians in Kosovo do not wish to live under Belgrade’s rule, nor do the Serbs of Kosovo wish to live under Pristina’s rule. The Serbian state retreated from Kosovo after signing the June 9, 1999, Kumanovo agreement, but retained formal sovereignty through UN Security Council Resolution 1244.

Behind this reality on the ground loom existential political issues: how can Kosovo function as a state? What is the legal status of the ethnic Serbs that live in the northernmost tip of Kosovo, around the city of Mitrovica, and how can they be protected? How can rights and security for all Serbs in Kosovo be enhanced? What status and protection will there be for the Orthodox monasteries south of the Ibar River, which runs through the city? One thing only is certain: Serbia’s — and Kosovo’s — future in Europe depends on a peaceful, negotiated answer to these questions.

Formally, the position of both sides remains clear and unchanged. Belgrade states that it will not recognize the independence of Kosovo; Kosovo contends that it is fully independent and wishes to be recognized as such by Serbia.

Yet even before the ICJ ruling, it was understood by all sides that this legal process would be a necessary rite of passage before opening the next chapter in the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. Belgrade and Pristina both have said that they have chosen and want to work for a future in the European Union. Even more importantly, they have made it clear that they are committed to peaceful resolution of all outstanding issues. Very few people, whether in government or civil society, seek a renewal of the conflicts of the 1990s, which cost the people of the Balkans so heavily. And despite the remaining animosities and unresolved issues, violence on the ground has become the exception rather than the rule. In a region scarred by a decade of war and conflict, this is no small feat.

The road to any settlement will still be long and arduous. The unresolved questions range from the existential/political (the legal position of Northern Kosovo, which remains de-facto under international administration but not under Pristina) to the technical (customs, police cooperation, electricity, water, and the like). In both countries, a war-weary public wants its government to make constructive moves; but in both, a minority of diehard opponents will try to block reconciliation. No one should underestimate just how difficult it will be for both sides to execute these manoeuvres.

The story of the Balkans is a quintessentially European story about competing claims for identity, sovereignty, and independence on a continent profoundly marked by ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, and political diversity and differences. The conflicts in Tyrol and Northern Ireland are (mostly, anyway) resolved; Cyprus remains unresolved; in Spain, the Basques and Catalans are still pulling away from Madrid.

In this story, the Balkans are the next chapter; and the European Union (backed by the United States) has a key role to play in it. What is the European project about if not peaceful post-war reconciliation? The Western Balkans — with Serbia and Kosovo at their heart — are one of the last missing pieces of this project. The transformational pull of Europe is already visible in the whole region. But the EU can do even more to promote cooperation, and help improve the lives of the people. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, said on the day of the ICJ ruling that “the EU is…ready to facilitate a process of dialogue” between Pristina and Belgrade, which was an important signal to the entire region. The priority and promise of enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans based on merit is the crucial framework for a successful way forward.

Still, Belgrade and Pristina remain the two main players in these settlement negotiations. And the process of dialogue (firmly encouraged by the EU and the United States) will in itself be a factor for peace, security, and stability in the region. It buys time, and builds trust; both are sorely needed. The ruling of the ICJ has now handed the question of how to achieve a durable peace back to the actors. In essence, it is saying, time for jaw-jaw after law-law.


Ivan Vejvoda directs the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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