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World Court Decides Ukraine-Romania Sea Border Dispute

The disputed Serpents IslandThe disputed Serpents Island
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The disputed Serpents Island
The disputed Serpents Island
(RFE/RL) -- The International Court of Justice in The Hague has delivered its ruling on the long-running dispute between Romania and Ukraine over an islet in the Black Sea -- called Serpents Island -- with access to potentially large reserves of oil and gas.

The court delivered a compromise decision that awarded part of the disputed sea floor to each country, but the biggest share went to Romania.

Romanian leaders hailed the decision. Speaking in Gyula, Hungary, Romanian President Traian Basescu said the verdict was "a major success for [Romania's] Foreign Ministry."

In Bucharest, former Romanian Prime MInister and opposition leader Calin Popescu Tariceanu said the court's decision will allow Romania to drill for oil and gas under the Black Sea. And a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Adrian Severin, said: "From now, Romania is able to exploit its full territory, including the continental shelf, and also has a better perspective for better relations and economic cooperation with Ukraine."

Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Kupchyshyn said the decision is "a wise compromise, and both parties are bound by this decision.... From now on there are no contradicting points between Ukraine and Romania."

The ruling means that the maritime border between Romania and Ukraine must be drawn up without consideration of Serpents Island.

At stake are oil exploration and drilling rights in a 12,000 square kilometer area of the Black Sea.

Romania has previously estimated that the disputed continental shelf there may contain reserves of 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas and more than 10 million tons of oil. Foreign oil majors have expressed interest in more fully exploring the area, and potentially investing in extraction.

Romania brought the case to the world court in 2004, after both Kyiv and Bucharest agreed to submit to the court's arbitration after years of fruitless bilateral negotiations.

Romania's case was that Serpents Island should be defined only as a rocky outcropping, and therefore need not be considered important enough to be a factor in drawing the Romanian-Ukrainian maritime border.

Ukraine's case was that Serpents Island should be defined as an island, as its name suggests, which would mean that the continental shelf around it would fall to Ukraine's possession.

The court's decision ignores the island as a factor in establishing the common boundary, and draws an equidistant line from the Ukrainian and Romanian shorelines. That awards the majority of the disputed territory to Romania.

Bogdan Aurescu, the head of the Romanian legal team, welcomed the result. "The boundary clearly separates the territories that can be used by Romania and Ukraine," Aurescu said. "It is a better line [for Romania] than any solution that could have been obtained through negotiations, better than anything Ukraine has offered."

Serpents Island was owned by Romania until 1948, when the Soviet leadership ordered it transferred to Ukrainian control. Romania has not contested Ukraine's ownership, but it has complained that Kyiv has been developing the island in order to bolster its undersea claim at the world court.

European parliamentarian Severin said the settlement imposed by the court has benefits for the whole region. "There are two major benefits," he said. "Number one is that a dispute between two neighboring countries is over, and this dispute was a burden on their bilateral relations; the second benefit is that Romania has a clear definition of its rights."

Presently the island has a population of about 100 people, mostly border guards, but also scientists and shopkeepers. It has a lighthouse, and a harbor is under construction.

Ukraine's representative to the court, Volodymyr Vasylenko, said before today's ruling that his side expected a compromise decision that would give something to both appellants.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report.

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