THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The United Nations’ highest court was weighing in Thursday on whether Kosovo’s independence is legal — possibly setting a precedent for separatist regions across the globe.
Kosovo sparked sharp debate worldwide when it seceded from Serbia in 2008, following a bloody 1998-99 war and nearly a decade of international administration. Kosovo’s statehood has been recognized by 69 countries, including the United States and most European Union nations, while Russia leads a handful of others in staunchly condemning it.
The International Court of Justice will issue an opinion Thursday that is nonbinding, but that is expected to lead to fresh efforts to reach a settlement between Belgrade and Pristina about Kosovo’s status.
Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni has said, however, that reopening negotiations is “inconceivable” and that a ruling in favor of Serbia’s claim could spark a new conflict in the region. He said Thursday he was confident the court would rule in favor of Kosovo’s independence.
But Serbia continues to demand Kosovo be returned, arguing it has been the cradle of their civilization and national identity since 1389, when a Christian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar lost an epic battle to invading Ottoman forces.
In 1989, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic delivered a speech from the Kosovo battle site that whipped up Serb nationalism and helped lead to the disintegration of former Yugoslavia.
If Thursday’s court ruling backs Kosovo’s independence as legal, more countries are expected to follow. Kosovo needs recognition by 100 countries for full statehood to be established.
The United States urged the court to leave Kosovo as it is.
“Serbia now seeks an opinion by this court that would turn back time … (and) undermine the progress and stability that Kosovo’s Declaration has brought to the region,” U.S. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh said.
Leading the other side of the argument is Serbia’s traditional ally Russia, which has fought its own separatist movement in Chechnya. Moscow has demanded Kosovo’s independence be annulled, and last year was joined in its opposition by Spain and China — each also facing a major secessionist movement.
“Today, Serbia is waging one of the biggest battles in its history to protect its soul and the holy land of Kosovo,” Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej said, after churches in Serbia and Kosovo were ordered to toll their bells as a prayer at 5 p.m. — when the decision is to be announced.
“Whatever the outcome, we have to negotiate a viable solution that would be acceptable to both the Serbs and the Albanians,” Irinej said, urging Serbs to remain calm and united whatever the outcome.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic warned that the ruling could trigger secessionist movements elsewhere.
“If the court supports Kosovo’s secession, no border in the region and the world would any longer be secure,” Jeremic said in The Hague.
The court’s judges must weigh the right of a sovereign state to territorial integrity against the right of a people to self-determination — both “fundamental rights in international law,” said international law expert Bibi van Ginkel of the Clingendael think tank in The Hague.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said he expected the court would issue a “correct ruling…according to the will of Kosovo’s citizens.”
“Kosovo will respect the advisory opinion,” Thaci told The Associated Press by phone, though he was already looking beyond the ruling, which he said could also “open up a new perspective for integration into NATO and the EU and a new set of relations and cooperation between Kosovo and Serbia as two partner countries.”
On the ground in Kosovo, there was anxiety about the ruling, said Marko Prelec, Balkans director for the International Crisis Group.
“There is an expectation that this will end the long judicial battle, the long international battle between Pristina and Belgrade over the status of Kosovo,” he said. “That it will end that phase of their struggle and begin, allow the beginning of a new diplomatic rapprochement between the two capitals.”
The 1989-99 war — triggered by a brutal crackdown by Serb forces against Kosovo’s separatist ethnic Albanians — killed about 10,000 ethnic Albanians before ending with a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. Hundreds of Serbs were also killed in retaliatory attacks.