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Timothy Waters
Associate Professor of Law
(812) 856-2748

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Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010

Waters: Kosovo decision means continued uncertainty, instability in Balkans

July 23, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The opinion issued Thursday (July 22) by the United Nation's highest court on the legality of Kosovo's independence won't thaw the frozen conflict between Albanians and Serbs, but it will encourage disaffected minority groups around the world to view secession as a legal option, according to an Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor.

Timothy Waters, who teaches on international criminal law and Yugoslavian issues, said the International Court of Justice's opinion represents a victory for Kosovo, since it confirms that Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was legal. But "the opinion doesn't change or challenge the geopolitical reality: Kosovo's Albanian majority was already independent, but Serbia continues to control the Serb-populated north," Waters said. "After yesterday's opinion, one thing is certain: more uncertainty."

Timothy Waters

Timothy Waters

Kosovo has been recognized by 69 countries, including the United States, but others -- including China, Russia, India and Serbia -- have opposed Kosovo's secession. Serbia persuaded the UN General Assembly to certify a question to the Court, asking if Kosovo's 2008 secession violated international law. Now that the Court has given its opinion, it is likely a number of countries that have been waiting will recognize Kosovo, but not enough to ensure Kosovo's entry into major international organizations like the UN. And the most important resisters won't change their view, Waters said. "The same political incentives and calculations exist today as yesterday."

In the short term, the Court's opinion may increase instability in Kosovo, but it probably won't trigger major violence, because Kosovo is already thoroughly divided, according to Waters. The opinion might eventually lead to rapprochement if Serbia feels it has run out of options and needs to salvage something, which might mean recognition of Kosovo in exchange for Kosovo's giving up its claim to the north. But hard-line views on both sides -- as well as resistance from Washington and Brussels -- make that a narrow prospect.

"Western states are adamantly opposed to changing borders -- apart from Kosovo's secession of course -- and continue to insist on integration of the north through decentralized governance and minority rights protections," Waters said.

The opinion's real significance lies outside Kosovo. Some fear it will encourage other secessionist movements to follow suit. The Court steered clear of deciding if Kosovo was a precedent, but the opinion will have an effect, Waters said. "The view that Kosovo's independence was a special 'one-off' is simply not realistic," Waters said. "Kosovo's independence has unquestionably encouraged groups that are unhappy with their current state. The fact that the U.S. and others insist so strongly that Kosovo isn't a precedent just shows that they perceive the risk."

The ICJ opinion will not lead to an eruption of new secessionist claims, but it will provide legal and moral encouragement to groups that are already disaffected, Waters said. "It allows them to argue -- really for the first time -- that secession is something they have a right to claim. That's not actually what the Court is saying, but it's not completely wrong: secessionist groups can say, 'Look the Court didn't say Kosovo's independence was illegal.' That will resonate with unhappy groups around the world, from Bosnia to South Ossetia to Bougainville and Somaliland -- even to the Serbs in Kosovo's north."

Professor Waters is available to comment on Thursday's ruling. He can be reached at 812-856-2748 or by e-mail at:

Waters has written numerous academic articles on self-determination and secession in the Balkans, and has commented on the Kosovo conflict and Balkans war crimes for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor,, BBC4, and others.