The International Court of Justice’s ruling last week that Kosovo did not violate international law with its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 should send an important message to Moscow and Washington: Stop meddling. This particular battle needs to be resolved by Belgrade and Pristina themselves — with a little help from the European Union. Russia and the United States must stand back and stop muddying the waters.
A close reading of the judgment shows that the court ruled on a very narrow issue. Stripped of its legalese, the ruling says it’s O.K. under international law to “say” that you want independence. But it adds that because Kosovo is “sub-sovereign” — not a proper nation state — it is not subject to the law of nations.
What the court did not say is whether Kosovo’s secession from Serbia or its recognition by various countries is in fact legal. But perception is everything and the perception that the court ruled in Kosovo’s favor is likely to trigger a further round of states willing to recognize its independence. Sixty-nine countries, including the United States and most E.U. states, have already done so. To qualify for membership in the United Nations and other vital international organizations, Kosovo needs the approval of two-thirds of the General Assembly, or at least 100 countries.
Many opponents argue that lending legitimacy to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence would bolster secessionist movements the world over. But the court’s ruling is far from a legal carte blanche. Kosovo and Serbia are in a special situation, and both have a particular incentive for resolving their differences — the prospect of E.U. membership. If they can resolve their problems the door to Brussels will swing open.
Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign minister, was quick to recognize this. “The E.U. is ready,” she said in a statement on the ruling, “to facilitate a process of dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. This dialogue would be to promote cooperation, achieve progress on the path to Europe and improve the lives of the people.”
Ms. Ashton is too skilled a diplomat to say it, but the implication of her statement should be clear to both Belgrade and Pristina. Kosovo must cease looking to secure its future by getting close to Washington, as Prime Minister Hashim Thaci appeared to be trying to do last week. And Belgrade must stop clinging to Russian objections to Kosovo’s independence. Serbia’s foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, sometimes gives the impression that this is indeed Belgrade’s central policy.
The European Union needs to set the agenda on Kosovo and the Balkans, a region whose members have already been guaranteed eventual membership. If the Union fails in its own backyard, then it can bid farewell to any idea of exerting its influence elsewhere.
Along with the active dialogue that Ms. Ashton promises, Brussels needs to do two things. First, it should improve the system of incentives offered to the Balkan countries that are still outside the Euopean Union. Second, Brussels should act to silence those forces in Washington and Moscow that clearly do not want a compromise solution to tensions in northern Mitrovica — the primary Serbian enclave in Kosovo — and the other problems dogging Pristina.
Meanwhile, the Serbian electorate should be asking why the government in Belgrade shot itself in the foot by bringing such a narrow issue to the international court with the overconfident assumption that the court’s ruling would be in Serbia’s favor. Who should be held accountable for this miserably failed strategy?
Serbs and Kosovo Albanians alike also would like to know how their leaders intend to accelerate moves toward E.U. membership and entrenching the rule of law. Kosovo’s government needs to pay particular attention to this latter goal, especially as the chief of the Central Bank in Pristina was arrested on Friday by the E.U. legal administration in the territory for money laundering, bribe taking and other forms of financial malfeasance.
Kosovo’s government will doubtless feel buoyed by the international court’s ruling, but this will not magically resolve the enormous challenges it faces.
Serbia and Kosovo find themselves confronted by the prisoner’s dilemma. Either they cooperate in their quest for E.U. membership or they remain outsiders, with disastrous consequences for themselves, the region and E.U. diplomacy.
Given their enmity, the idea of Belgrade and Pristina actually cooperating may appear far-fetched. But we can all take heart from the exceptionally fruitful regional and bilateral ties that have developed in the Balkans over the past five years. Just 10 years ago, Serbia and Croatia regarded each other as bitter enemies. Though they still face outstanding issues arising from the wars of the 1990s, they have shown a tremendous willingness to work together on the most pressing regional questions, like the struggle against organized crime.
Whether contact between Serbia and Kosovo comes via the organs of regional cooperation; whether it is established through discreet back-channels; or whether the European Union fashions an Oslo-style peace process does not matter greatly.
But the two must start talking. Not just about unilateral declarations but about things that ultimately will matter much more to their citizens.
Misha Glenny, the author of The Balkans: 1804 to 1999.