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UN Court Hears Serbian Challenge To Kosovo Independence


A Kosovar man celebrates on the first anniversary of Kosovo's independence declaration on February 17 of this year.
THE HAGUE -- The legality of Kosovo's secession from Serbia is being reviewed by the International Court of Justice in hearings that started today in The Hague.

In nine days of hearings, the court is taking into consideration arguments from Kosovo, Serbia, and 29 petitioning countries before handing down a non-binding, advisory ruling -- most likely next year.

The outcome is likely to affect whether other countries recognize Kosovo's independence.

Ethnic Albanian officials from Pristina and Serbian authorities from Belgrade are starting the hearings off today with testimony. The court will continue to conduct discussions with experts until December 11.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondent Dragan Stavljanin, who is at The Hague, said it's possible that the court "could stay undecided."

"Recently, [the court's] President [Judge] Hisashi Owada said the court will not will present [a uniform] answer and that it will be necessary to read [a 30-page ruling and analysis] thoroughly since the judges have different opinions," Stavljanin said.

It was on Belgrade's initiative that the UN General Assembly called on the International Court of Justice to give a consultative decision on whether Pristina's move violates international law.

Serbia's ambassador to France, Dusan Batakovic, told the court today that since Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, "the Serbs in Kosovo have become a de facto minority in their own country."

"The unilateral declaration of independence by the provisional autonomous administration of Kosovo represents a flagrant violation of Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Batakovic said. "Serbia has decided to challenge this illegitimate and illicit decision."

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said he hopes Belgrade's challenge will lead to a court ruling that helps bring an end to countries recognizing Kosovo's declaration. Jeremic also says Belgrade wants the decision to force Pristina to reenter talks about its future.

"Today in the courtroom we have demonstrated wisdom, calmness and strength," Jeremic said. "More than two-thirds of the world are on Serbia's side as well as historical justice and international law."

But Kosovo's foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, told reporters in The Hague that today's testimony supported Kosovo's declaration of independence.

"What we heard was just a reconfirmation of the rightfulness of Kosovo's case and Kosovo's independence. And of course, we continue to have full confidence in the court and the deliberations of the court," Hyseni said.

"And we are certain that the court will, at the end of the day, reconfirm Kosovo's will to be independence -- the will of the people of Kosovo for freedom and independence."

Stavljanin said the eventual ruling by the court has the potential to affect whether additional countries recognize Kosovo's independence.

"Kosovo declared independence and, so far, 63 countries have supported it. But there are a lot of still undecided countries waiting for the International Court of Justice's decision," Stavljanin said.

"Although the decision will just be an advisory one, it can influence, in one way or another, the position of undecided countries -- particularly in Asia or Africa or South America."

'Immoral And Illegal'

Russia has signaled its frustration over Western support for Kosovo's independence. Moscow supports Belgrade's argument that the move is destabilizing and violates international law.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has described Western support for Kosovo's independence as "immoral and illegal" behavior that will encourage separatists in other parts of the world to declare their independence.

But ethnic Albanian authorities in Pristina are getting backing from Western authorities in their argument that Belgrade lost its moral and legal right to govern Kosovo when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated and when Serbian forces launched ethnic-cleansing operations against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo during the 1990s.

"Kosovo itself and most Western countries -- including the United States, Britain, France and Germany -- are trying to point out that Kosovo's independence is a unique case that cannot set a precedent for other ethnic conflicts worldwide," Stavljanin said.

"Also, [they are arguing] that the way the former Yugoslavia was dissolved, ethnic cleansing and atrocities committed by Serbian forces against Kosovo mean that Serbia no longer has moral or legal grounds to rule over Kosovo."

Of the 29 countries that have filed petitions to bring expert testimony to this month's hearings, Stavljanin said 15 support Kosovo's independence while 14 support Belgrade's position.

It was in June 1999 that NATO forces moved into Kosovo -- then a province of Serbia -- under a UN mandate.

The deployments began after 78 days of NATO air strikes against Serbia that brought an end to a Serbian crackdown that killed thousands of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and forced about 1 million more from the province.

Kosovo remained a UN-administered province of Serbia until February 2008, when Pristina declared independence.