The United Nations General Assembly next month is expected to debate the future of Kosovo. The breakaway Serbian province became a U.N. protectorate in 1999 after its ethnic Albanian majority fought a two-year war with Serbia, then declared independence in 2008. Earlier this summer, the U.N.'s International Court of Justice ruled that declaration legal under international law.
Kosovo's declaration of independence brought joy to the streets of its capital Pristina. But not in Serbia where many people consider Kosovo part of their nation's ancestral homeland. Serb leaders argued that Kosovo independence challenged Serbian sovereignty and undermined international law. The International Court of Justice disagreed.
"The declaration of independence of the 17 February 2008 did not violate general international law," ICJ President Hisashi Owada stated.
The World Court's ruling is not binding, but Kosovo's leaders see it as an important step toward broad international recognition and eventual U.N. membership. A total of 69 countries, including the United States, Japan and most of the European Union, already recognize Kosovo.
"Basically, what the court's ruling means is whether secession is legal or not, is largely a political question. It comes down to whether enough countries recognize the entity that has seceded," said Valasek with the Center for European Reform in London.
But Kosovo still faces significant obstacles to taking a seat at the U.N. General Assembly. Both Russia and China object, and both are permanent members of the Security Council. Russia also is a key Serbian ally, and is caught up in a secessionist tangle of its own involving the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia briefly went to war with Georgia over South Ossetia is one of the few nations that recognizes its independence.
"What Moscow may argue is, 'Well, that also puts South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the same category. All we've got to do is get other countries to recognize their independence,' which it, of course, hasn't been very successful at," added Valasek.
The debates over Kosovo, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not isolated arguments. A wide range of ethnic minority groups around the world have long sought independence - including some without a defined territory of their own. Some 30 to 40 million Kurds live across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
But the U.N. court ruling on Kosovo did not address the Kurds' demand for self-determination, says Catriona Vine of the Kurdish Human Rights Project.
"That's why this particular decision has limited legal impact for the Kurds because it is about a very specific set of circumstances where the U.N. was running an interim administration," said Vine.
Key states - Romania, Slovakia and Spain - refuse to recognize Kosovo, fearing its success might spark secessionist movements in their own backyards.