Kosovo at the Crossroads: Impact of the International Court of Justice Ruling

Q1: What impact will the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding Kosovo’s declaration of independence have on the country’s international standing?

A1 : The ICJ’s advisory opinion that Kosovo's declaration of independence in February 2008 did not violate international law has been acclaimed in Kosovo and criticized by Serbia. Paradoxically, it was Belgrade that actually asked for the Court’s ruling. ICJ statements carry no binding legal weight, and individual states can interpret them as they wish. However, the verdict is likely to unblock new recognitions for Kosovo, especially after the ICJ opinion is presented to the United Nations General Assembly in September. The government in Prishtina wants to expand the current total of 69 bilateral recognitions to more than 100, thus demonstrating the country’s legitimacy and acceptance by the majority of UN members. This would provide a new impetus to Kosovo’s regional cooperation and integration into international organizations.

Q2: Will Serbia continue to block Kosovo’s international legitimacy?

A2 : The Serbian government will continue to campaign against Kosovo’s membership in multi national organizations, but its obstruction would be significantly reduced if it lacked strong backing from Russia. Because Kosovo’s legitimacy and Balkan stability correspond with U.S. security interests, Washington can more effectively use its outreach policy toward Moscow to reverse Russia’s opposition to Kosovo’s entry into the UN. Without international institutional inclusion and economic integration, Kosovo and several neighboring states, including Serbia itself, could become trapped in a new spiral of conflict over territories and minorities. Settling Kosovo’s international position and stabilizing Balkan borders presents a valuable opportunity for Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to demonstrate his declared commitment to European security. The ICJ verdict will also reinvigorate disputes between proponents and opponents of national sovereignty for minority populations that have been subjected to mass repression by existing states. It will be intriguing to see which governments will turn to the ICJ for future rulings on separatist disputes.

Q3: What effect has the European Union’s policies toward the Western Balkans, and particularly Kosovo, had since Kosovo declared independence in 2008? Has the EU’s Rule of Law mission (EULEX) had a significant impact in fighting corruption and improving reform in the country?

A3 :  The EU is the future for the Western Balkans, and its political and economic engagement in the region has had a profound influence by encouraging reform and regional dialogue. The EU understands its role and value, and so do Balkan politicians. EU member states declared their support for the “European perspective” of all Western Balkan countries at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, and since then all states have become engaged in the accession process. Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia have submitted applications for EU entry, but for Kosovo membership is a more difficult challenge. Five EU member states do not recognize Kosovo’s independence (it will be interesting to see if those EU members will reassess their position following the ICJ ruling) so that the country is not allowed to formally begin the accession process. However, the EU has a larger presence in Kosovo than in any other country in the region, specifically through its Rule of Law mission (EULEX). As the largest civilian mission launched under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), EULEX's purpose is to assist Kosovar judicial authorities and law enforcement agencies to combat corruption and strengthen the judicial system and police capabilities. EULEX is helping to create and train a multiethnic Kosovar police force and has moderated ethnic tensions in the Serb-dominated north (Mitrovica). Corruption remains one of the most significant challenges, and in April of this year 16 officials representing EULEX were themselves caught up in a smuggling scandal. Recently, prosecutors have taken up several high-level corruption cases, including those targeting high-ranking ministry officials, as part of a new plan to curb corruption in government and industry alike.

While the EU supports enlargement and deeper integration in the Western Balkans and is actively engaged in Kosovo, it is also distracted by its own institutional consolidation following ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and its continued focus on its debt crisis and challenges to the Euro monetary zone. Thus, enthusiasm for the Western Balkan accession process has dropped, and the enlargement rhetoric rings increasingly hollow for many Balkan politicians who question the sincerity of the EU's commitment to continued enlargement. 

Q4: How important is it for the United States to remain engaged in Kosovo and how vital is it that the United States and the EU work together?

A4 :  The United States played a pivotal role in Kosovo’s road to independence and continues to be seen by Kosovar politicians as an integral player in the country’s future. It must therefore remain engaged. However, the EU has now taken the lead in guiding Kosovo to a stable future, as seen in the EULEX mission. But it will not be an easy task: monitoring ethnic tension in the north, negotiating border disputes between Kosovo and Serbia, and undoing a decades-old system of corruption and paternalism, not to mention formulating its own cohesive policy toward Kosovo when 5 of its 27 member states have not recognized its independence, may be too much for the EU to effectively manage alone. 

The EU needs the United States to support its work and help design a broader strategy for regional stability and development. Even before the ICJ decision, Vice President Joe Biden, in his meeting with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci of Kosovo, reiterated that the United States fully supported “an independent, democratic, whole, and multi ethnic Kosovo” and that he “welcomed the progress that Kosovo’s government has made in carrying out essential reforms, including steps to strengthen the rule of law and successfully integrate minority communities.” It is important to note that these efforts would not have been possible without the EU and the United States working together. 

Janusz Bugajski holds the Lavrentis Lavrentiadis Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he is also director of the New European Democracies Project and senior fellow with the Europe Program. Heather A. Conley is director and senior fellow of the Europe Program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Heather A. Conley

Janusz Bugajski