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Will Ruling on Kosovo Entice Other Regions to Declare Independence?

A decision on Kosovo's independence by the United Nations highest court could have ramifications for other countries.

The United Nations International Court of Justice in The Hague, or ICJ, has ruled that Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was legal.

Kosovo's Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni addressed reporters shortly after the non-binding court opinion was released. "This is great news for Kosovo. This is great news for the peace and stability in the region of the Western Balkans. This is great news for Europe because finally, an international court of justice, an esteemed institution of justice, has confirmed that the people of Kosovo did the right thing by declaring their independence on the 17th of February 2008," he said.

For his part, Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said the court ruling will not change his country's position. "Serbia will never under any circumstances recognize the unilateral declaration of independence of the so-called Republic of Kosovo," he said.

Ian Bancroft, the co-founder of TransConflict, a humanitarian organization working in the western Balkans, says the ruling handed down by the International Court is important.

"Key, absolutely key. Serbia was relying upon this non-binding ruling to give them momentum, the political, moral, legal, symbolic weight to go to the United Nations General Assembly and secure another resolution calling for the resumption of negotiations with Kosovo. Having failed to secure the verdict that they expected, and bearing in mind that the ICJ has delivered what most people were not expecting, which is an unambiguous ruling, Serbia now will have to seriously reconsider the approach that it takes," he said.

Sixty nine countries, including the United States, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom have recognized Kosovo's independence. But as Kurt Volker, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO says, a key country still opposed to Kosovo's independence is Russia.

"Russia has partially identified itself as a patron of Serbia and wants to be supportive of Serbia. Secondly, it feels that this was done outside the United Nations Security Council and therefore Russia, as a Security Council permanent member feels that it should have had the right to agree or disagree and if it disagreed, that it should not have taken place. And then thirdly, of course, Russia itself is a country with many different ethnic people and many different regions and is of course also interested in making sure that we don't create a rampant international right of breakaway independent states," he said.

Many experts, including Ian Bancroft, believe that the ruling by the International Court of Justice sends a message worldwide. "The principle of the ICJ ruling seems to be very clear, that international law does not prohibit unilateral declarations of independence. Therefore, any secessionist movement, no matter where it is in the world, will look towards this and gain some encouragement that they too can pursue this path," he said.

But Kurt Volker expresses a different viewpoint. "I don't think this is going to have that big an effect on either side, whether it's the states who want to maintain their territorial integrity against the aspirations of their own indigenous people or, for that matter, movements that want to seek their own independence and freedom. Those tendencies, those desires are already going on and they will continue to pursue them independent of that decision," he said.

Experts say the ICJ ruling will now be forwarded to the U.N. General Assembly where a debate on Kosovo is expected to be held next September.