THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP)—Kosovo won a major victory on the world stage Thursday as the United Nations’ highest court said its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was legal.
The nonbinding opinion by the International Court of Justice sets the stage for Kosovo to renew its appeals for further international recognition. The tiny Balkan country has been recognized by 69 countries, including the United States and most European Union nations. It needs 100 for full statehood.
“Kosovo’s historic victory should not be felt as a loss in Belgrade,” Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said, calling the ruling “the best possible answer for the entire world.” Kosovo’s foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, said upon leaving the court, “my message to the government of Serbia is ‘Come and talk to us.'”
Serbia quickly denounced the ruling and vowed it would never recognize Kosovo as separate.
The opinion—passed in a 10-4 vote by court judges read by court president Hisashi Owada—says international law contains “no… prohibition of declarations of independence” and therefore Kosovo’s declaration “did not violate general international law.”
The United States said the ruling was “a judgment we support,” according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “Now it is time for Europe to unite behind a common future.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic warned, however, that the ruling could encourage separatist movements elsewhere around the world who would now be “tempted to write declarations of independence” in line with the court’s ruling.
“We will never recognize the unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence,” Jeremic told reporters on the steps of the court’s Peace Palace headquarters in The Hague.
He said Serbia would continue to “fight” for Kosovo by peaceful means.
“Difficult times are ahead… but it is crucial that our people don’t react to any possible provocations,” Jeremic said, amid fears that angered ultranationalist might trigger violence in Serbia and Kosovo. They set the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade on fire when Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Kosovo sparked sharp debate worldwide when it seceded from Serbia in 2008, following a bloody 1998-99 war with Serbia and nearly a decade of international administration.
Serbia and Russia have led opposing countries in condemning Kosovo’s statehood, with Serbs 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.
Serbia’s ultranationalist Radical Party said the court “gravely violated” international law, and called on the government to demand an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council to end the EU peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
And in Kosovo’s divided northern city of Mitrovica, Kosovo Serb Tihomir Markovic called the ruling shameful.
“Justice is on our side, God is on our side,” he said. “After this it will be hard for us — the Serbs in Kosovo.”
NATO-led troops increased their presence Thursday in the Serb-controlled part of Mitrovica.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the ruling would not affect the role of the 10,000-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR.
“KFOR will continue to implement its mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment in an impartial manner throughout Kosovo, for the benefit of all communities, majority and minority alike,” he said.