THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Serbia has suffered a major diplomatic blow in a world court ruling on Thursday that Kosovo did not violate international law in declaring independence 2008, a ruling that could also impact Bosnia's future stability.
"It is an upper cut right to the chin, with no moving around after that," said one EU diplomat. "It's like Mike Tyson taking out the other guy in the 34th second and then he doesn't move."
The clear-cut, unambiguous ruling contained little language from which the Serbian government can find solace. Many observers had expected the International Court of Justice to present arguments that would give each side legal reasoning with which to continue making their respective cases.
"The court opens the door for non-state actors to legally consider unilateral declarations of independence," said Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association who has worked on Kosovo issues in the past. "This will be a new and vexing challenge for the international community."
Over the past two years, Serbia has spent considerable diplomatic energy lobbying countries against recognizing Kosovo, a region many Serbs cherish as the cradle of their Serbian Orthodox Church.
Belgrade's strong line against Kosovo's independence is important domestically, where any recognition of Kosovo's independence is considered politically fatal. But the issue has complicated the goal of joining the European Union for a country still struggling to emerge from its pariah status during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
"Serbia has never lost European Union membership from its strategic focus," Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told Reuters in The Hague after the ruling. "But what we are going to equally keep up with is the diplomatic struggle to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity and that can only happen through peaceful negotiations."
Some analysts say the Serbian government must take a tough line on Kosovo for domestic political reasons, but say the advisory ICJ opinion could help on the longer term on a tacit policy of gradual disengagement from Kosovo.
"This decision is a vindication of American, European, NATO, EU and UN policy toward Kosovo over the past 12 years," said James Dobbins, a former U.S. envoy to the Balkans.
"While I expect it will be poorly received in Belgrade, I believe many thoughtful Serbs will come to see that this decision offers their country a way out of the dead-end policies which have blocked Serbia's full integration in Europe and its prospects for a more prosperous future."
EU and U.S. diplomats are expected to step up efforts in the coming days to urge Serbia to compromise on practical issues in Kosovo such as issues around daily life in the northern part of the country outside of Pristina's control.
The ruling could embolden ethnic Serbs to seek independence, including in Bosnia, a country divided along ethnic lines after the deadliest fighting since World War Two in the 1990s.
"If the eventual ruling affirms the right of unilateral self-determination, this may be a message for some future moves," Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia's Serb Republic, said on Wednesday.
Dodik has repeatedly threatened a referendum for secession of the region from Bosnia, and elections in October may exacerbate ethnic tensions in the still fragile country.
"The Serb Republic has its territory, population and government, thus all elements in place to follow the Kosovo-like path if it decides so," said Desanka Majkic, the Bosnian Serb hardline speaker of Bosnia's central parliament's upper house.
Other separatists far from the Balkans may also review the ICJ opinion to bolster their own cases for independence.
"The advisory may have far reaching implications for conflicts and disputes as disparate as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the Basque territory of Spain, and Tibet in China," said Fred Cocozzelli, assistant professor of government and politics at St. John's University.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Jon Hemming