Tiny Kosovo, a province of the former state of Yugoslavia, has been the spark that has ignited Balkan fires. In the battle of Kosovo, fought in 1389, Ottoman forces defeated a coalition of Serbs, Albanians and Bosnians to claim the territory. That scar burned in the Serbian heart.

In 1989, the late Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic marked that anniversary by declaring the centrality of Kosovo in Serb identity, beginning a process that would unleash Serb nationalism, reverse the province’s autonomy, and ultimately lead to the disintegration of Yugoslavia itself and Milosevic’s imprisonment for war crimes.

The Kosovo wound festered throughout the unraveling of Yugoslavia, but Kosovo remained part of the rump state as other restive provinces broke away and claimed their independence. Eventually fierce Serb repression of Kosovar identity — 93 percent of the population claims ties to neighboring Albania — triggered open rebellion, which prompted acts of ethnic cleansing. It is estimated that 1 million people were forced from their homes, and at least 11,000 people lost their lives.

Those atrocities prompted a 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, after which Belgrade surrendered and a United Nations administration took over, which installed a NATO-monitored ceasefire and guaranteed Kosovo’s autonomy while maintaining the territorial integrity of the former Yugoslavia.

That situation prevailed for less than a decade, until the Kosovars’ unrequited ambitions flared again and the province declared its independence on Feb. 17, 2008. Serbia immediately denounced the move, took its case to the U.N. General Assembly, which referred the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. That tribunal ruled July 22 that the unilateral declaration of independence did not violate international law.

According to the nonbinding opinion, international law contains no “prohibition on declarations of independence,” and therefore Kosovo’s declaration “did not violate international law.” The judges attempted to temper the impact of its ruling by avoiding any finding on whether the state of Kosovo itself is a legal entity according to international law. That, the court averred, depends on the recognition that a state receives after making that declaration.

In Kosovo’s case, the jury is still out. Thus far, 69 of 192 countries in the U.N. General Assembly — Japan among them — have recognized Kosovo. In the wake of the ruling, Kosovo will now be pressing its case in the world’s undecided capitals. That diplomatic blitz will be matched by Serbia, equally insistent on keeping “Greater Serbia” — with its Kosovo heart — intact.

In particular, Belgrade is counting on support from China and Russia. Both countries have restive minorities of their own, and those governments oppose any ruling that might tempt those groups to write their own declarations of independence. China was inspired enough to make its first oral pleading before the court since the 1960s.

Indeed, it is the fear of inflating secessionist sentiments around the world that rallies governments to Serbia’s side in this dispute. There are separatist movements in Cyprus, Spain, Scotland, Italy, Iraq, Indonesia, Somaliland, and throughout Central Europe and the Caucasus. If the doomsayers are right, this ruling could lead to a redrawing of the map of the world.

Western nations, at least those that have recognized Kosovo, insist those fears are overblown. Kosovo, they argue, is a unique case, having been subjected to ethnic cleansing that triggered a NATO intervention. Few other cases will be so constituted.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia may argue that their situation is cut from the same cloth. The Republic of South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in 1990, but it was not recognized by Georgia or the rest of the world. That triggered several conflicts that culminated in the region’s “liberation” by the Russian military in 2008.

The Republic of South Ossetia has since been recognized by Russia and three other countries. Moscow does not seem too troubled by the apparent contradiction in its positions; the particulars of each case — and its relation to broader Russian national interests — seems to prevail over other principles.

The Serbian government has said its next step — in tandem with a diplomatic offensive — will be to submit a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly that seeks a compromise on the situation. It is not clear what sort of compromise would satisfy Kosovo’s ambitions. After this ruling, the bar may be higher than before. At a minimum, though, it is important to acknowledge one important development from this process: Serbia and Kosovo are fighting this out in a court of law rather than on a battlefield. That alone is considerable progress.

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