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Envoy Predicts Independence Ruling On Kosovo Will Be 'Mixed' But Break New Ground

Kosovo Albanians ride a horse-drawn cart decorated with Kosovo and Albanian flags near the town of Mitrovica in February.
BRUSSELS -- A senior international official in Kosovo, Pieter Feith, has became the most senior figure to date to speculate on the outcome of the deliberations of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008.

Speaking in Brussels after a meeting with EU ambassadors on June 8, Feith -- who serves as both the EU special representative and international civilian representative for Kosovo -- said he expects the outcome of the case brought by Serbia, which does not accept Kosovo's independence, to be "mixed."

"I'm working on the assumption that the ruling will be broadly giving some comfort to the position of Belgrade and some support to the position of Kosovo," Feith says. "So, it would be a mixed set of considerations."

Pieter Feith
The case was presented before The Hague-based ICJ in October 2008. Feith says he does not know when the ruling will be made, although other observers have speculated the court could present its opinion as early as July.

In his capacity as Kosovo's international civilian representative, Feith officially represents a steering group of 25 countries in the world which have recognized Kosovo out of a total of 69 countries that have done so. But in his second post, as the EU special representative, he also speaks for the European Union -- five of whose member states have not recognized Kosovo.

Speaking for those countries that have recognized Kosovo, Feith said the ICJ's ruling, which is nonbinding, will have no "material effect" on their decision. He also said he expects the ruling to encourage significant numbers of other countries to follow suit.

Feith said he expects the ruling to strengthen international law in the area of secession.

"It is important in many ways, because it will break new ground in international law on an issue where international law is not very articulate -- that is, the right of states or peoples to independence," Feith says.

There are fears a ruling going overtly Kosovo's way could provide Bosnia's Serb entity, Republika Srpska, with a justification to declare independence as well. Top EU officials have repeatedly said, however, that they will not accept the emergence of further states in the western Balkans.

The EU, although split on Kosovo's independence, has repeatedly said Kosovo, as part of the western Balkans, will sooner or later become part of the EU -- as will Serbia. The bloc's assistance to Kosovo, spearheaded by the EULEX rule-of-law mission, is geared toward building up sustainable local governance structures across the whole territory.

The EU on June 8 extended the mandate of EULEX until June 14, 2012.

The EU's stance on the issue has been made more awkward during the past half-year by the fact that the bloc's rotating presidency is held by Spain, a country with its own separatist concerns and a leading opponent of Kosovo's independence. Officials in Brussels say Spain has visibly favored Serbia in its dealings with the region.

Officially, the EU is keen to promote dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo on all levels. Feith said it is "up to Belgrade and Pristina to draw their own conclusions" once the ICJ announces its decision.

Feith said the EU's concern for stability extends to the situation within Kosovo, where Serbian-dominated areas in the north around Mitrovica have refused to bow to the authorities in Pristina -- or cooperate with the EU.

Yves de Kermabon
Accordingly, Feith sought to reassure local leaders in Mitrovica that their wishes will be respected.

"Whatever is attempted as far as the north [goes] is critically dependent on local acceptance," Feith says. "So the people in the north should not feel any sense of intimidation or threat. We want to keep the north stable, but the north is part of the overall area that will move closer to the European Union. It should not end up as a frozen conflict."

But the EU and international envoy also ruled out a partitioning of Kosovo.

Speaking alongside Feith, the head of the EULEX mission, former French General Yves de Kermabon, said he has traveled twice to Belgrade in a quest to persuade Serbian authorities to allow local courts and judges -- Albanians among them -- to operate in Mitrovica.

Both EU representatives declined to comment on allegations of corruption and involvement with organized crime leveled at at least one Kosovar minister. Feith said the European Commission's progress report in the autumn will offer an appraisal of Pristina's record.

De Kermabon repeatedly praised the "political maturity" of Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, in recent months, which he said was illustrated by the continued stability in the country despite recent challenges presented by an EULEX-sponsored war crimes trial.

However, there were reports over the weekend that a leaked EULEX memo harshly criticizes the Kosovar government for interfering with the independence of the judiciary -- citing Thaci's recent comments during a government meeting that the three Albanian defendants on trial are innocent.

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