The ruling by the International Court of Justice on Thursday didn't go Serbia's way. By stating that Kosovo's unilateral secession in 2008 did not violate international law, the United Nations body has likely cleared the way for even more countries to recognize Europe's newest state.
While the decision by the court, based in The Hague, is non-binding, it effectively destroyed Belgrade's efforts to strangle Kosovo's nationhood at birth. The government in Serbia had sought an opinion on Pristina's 2008 declaration of independence from the ICJ.
Meanwhile, separatist movements across the globe may take courage from a ruling which seemed to give self-determination as much weight as territorial integrity.
"The court considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declarations of independence," Judge Hisashi Owada, president of the ICJ, said on Thursday when delivering the non-binding advisory opinion.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the decision as a "historic victory," and Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni, standing outside the court, said: "My message to the government of Serbia is 'come and talk to us.'"
The response from the Serbs, however, was not conciliatory. Serb Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told reporters: "We will never recognize the unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence." Serbian hardline nationalists claimed the defeat at The Hague represented a failure of the moderate government in Belgrade's policy.
EU Urges Serbia and Kosovo to Patch Up Relations
Meanwhile, the European Union urged Serbia and Kosovo to improve their relations in order to increase their chances of EU membership down the road. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the bloc was ready to help both sides to hold a dialogue "to promote cooperation, achieve progress on the path to Europe and improve the lives of the people."
Serbs consider Kosovo to be the cradle of medieval Serbian religion and culture. Belgrade lost control of the province in 1999. After Serbian troops under then leader Slobodan Milosevic caused mass displacement in Kosovo during a bloody war between Serb forces and Albanian separatists, NATO began a massive bombing campaign. After the fighting ceased, Kosovo was then administered by the international community until independence was declared in 2008. The province is 90 percent Albanian, but enclaves of Serbs who refuse to recognize the government in Pristina remain.
On Thursday, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, increased its presence in the Serb-controlled parts of Kosovo, particularly Mitrovica. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the force would "continue to implement its mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment in an impartial manner throughout Kosovo."
On Friday, German commentators assess the implications of the ruling and many argue that Serbia should see it as an opportunity to take a more pragmatic approach towards Kosovo.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Serbia had hoped to bring the process of the recognition of Kosovo to a halt. ... Its attempt to play upon the fears of regional instability was a mistake. Serbian politicians had claimed that the independence of Kosovo would push the Balkans back toward war and violence. In fact, the opposite occurred. The two and a half years since Pristina's proclamation have been the most peaceful and stable the region has seen in two decades. The contribution that the creation of a second Albanian state has made to the stability cannot be overstated."
"For Belgrade the defeat in The Hague should be an opportunity to rethink its destructive Kosovo policy. No one is asking Serbia to recognize Kosovo. But it is time to take a more pragmatic path."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The wars in the Balkans brought a new dimension to international law. ... The wounding memory of the Srebrenica massacre and the helpless rage over the mass displacement of Albanians from Kosovo haunt the international community. An answer had to be found to the question of whether a sovereign state can be left unpunished to carry out injustices within its own borders. Does sovereignty protect against intervention, even when the most terrible crimes against humanity are being carried out?"
"As a consequence of this sense of helplessness the UN took on the 'responsibility to protect.' This gives NATO's military interventions a legal basis after the fact. The international community can now attack when a state is abusing human rights, by carrying out mass displacements, ethnic cleansing or genocide."
"The decision of the International Court on the independence of Kosovo is now the logical extension of the new legal interpretation. The sovereign state is no longer so sovereign."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Separatist movements from Catalonia to Tibet will greet this ruling with joy. The court's opinion may not be legally binding but it gives a powerful moral support to every people striving for independence."
"The court has turned the tables. States' territorial integrity does not have priority in every case. Under certain circumstances a peoples' right to self-determination has more weight. That is right, because the way states treat their minorities matters. Under Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbs never treated the Albanians in Kosovo as equal citizens, they were discriminated against and then forced into flight on a mass scale. Today's democratic Serbia is not to blame for this. However, it has the historic responsibility and (Serbia) must finally accept it. But even a new Serbia is not going to persuade the Albanians to return."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"(The ruling) strengthens the position of the Kosovo-Albanian government and the 22 of the 27 EU states that together with the United States have already recognized the breakaway province of Serbia as a new state."
"That five EU states did not do the same has less to do with Kosovo itself than with the worry that it would create a precedence that restive provinces or minorities could point to."
"For Serbia the issue is about self-respect, identity and leadership in the Balkans. The message from The Hague is bitter. The EU must do much, through clever negotiations in the direction of membership, to calm the old demons. The Kosovo government has to avoid any kind of triumphalism."
"What remain are two conflicting conclusions: on the one hand, the worry that the ruling will give the many separatist groups courage and energy; on the other, the hope that the central governments will respond to all separatist demands with statesmanship and caution."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Without a doubt, the decision, though not legally binding, is a blow for Serbia. ... However, it also offers the government in Belgrade a chance to abandon its blockading stance, which stands in the way of Serbia's stated effort to become better integrated in Western structures. Any loss of face could be limited by the fact that Kosovo's independence has after all been given the blessing of an internationally recognized legal institution."
"Kosovo, on the other hand, will feel validated. But cries of triumph would be misplaced. The two-year independence of Europe's youngest state is far from a success story. Not in the light of mafia-like structures and rampant corruption, and the status of the Serb enclaves, such as Mitrovica."
"Since Kosovo also wants to become an EU member, the two sides will not be able to avoid eventually sitting down at a table together. If the ruling does anything to speed up this process then even those who oppose Kosovo's independence may come to regard the court's pronouncement positively."