October 7, 2008 / 3:49 PM / 9 years ago

Serbia challenge to Kosovo independence goes to U.N.

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s efforts to challenge Kosovo’s secession are expected to culminate this week in a United Nations decision on whether to ask a court if the region’s independence is legal.

<p>Kosovo Serbs protest against the European Union rule of law mission (EULEX) in Gracanica, near Pristina, October 2, 2008. REUTERS/Hazir Reka</p>

Forty-seven countries including the United States and most European Union countries have recognised Kosovo since its ethnic Albanian majority unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on February 17, but Serbia and its ally Russia oppose it.

The U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote on Wednesday whether to seek a non-binding advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice on the legality of Kosovo’s independence.

Many Serbs back such moves, hoping they will block further diplomatic recognition of Kosovo. But Goran Bogdanovic, Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, said the pro-Western government also faced pressure from abroad not to force a vote on the issue.

“The pressure is coming from those countries that have already recognised Kosovo and that are influential,” Bogdanovic told Reuters in an interview.

Serbia’s foreign minister said last month that rejecting Belgrade’s request to seek the World Court’s opinion would send a signal that force was the way to solve problems.

The Serbian government also hopes a World Court review, which could take two to three years, would give it more time to solidify policies including seeking European Union membership.

“The initiative will buy time for Serbia,” said Dusan Janjic, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Social Studies in Belgrade. “It will turn Kosovo into a matter of judiciary rather than the political one and will provide Serbia with enough time to formulate its new policy for Kosovo.”

HISTORIC TIES

Serbia lost control of its southern province in 1999, when NATO intervened to halt the ethnic cleansing of civilians in a counter-insurgency war, and the United Nations took over.

Diplomats and U.N. officials have said many countries may abstain in the assembly vote, where a simple majority would carry the day. The majority of U.N members have so far held back from recognising Kosovo.

European diplomats say the European Union is split on the issue. While most EU members are expected to abstain, Cyprus and Spain are among those expected to back Serbia.

Some Western diplomats at the United Nations have said that if the resolution is approved by the General Assembly it may take years for the ICJ to reach a decision. Countries that have yet to recognise Kosovo could use this as a reason to postpone decisions on recognition.

“If this initiative fails, then we will in our bilateral contacts try to convince the countries that have not recognised Kosovo so far not to make a move,” Bogdanovic said.

More than 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2.1 million people are ethnic Albanians, but many Serbs consider the territory sacred because it is the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Serbs also fought a major battle there against the Turks in 1389.

About 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo and refuse to take orders from Albanian-run institutions.

Serbian officials have hinted they might consider backing a partition of Kosovo, but foreign powers have opposed such a move and not all the region’s Serbs live in areas next to Serbia.

“If you ask me, I think that partition is a little bit better option than independence,” Bogdanovic said. “However, the issue is -- where the border line should be drawn. It would not be possible to do it without big disturbances and turmoil.”

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who visited Kosovo on Tuesday, ruled out partition and said Washington would keep peacekeeping troops in the region until at least late 2009. (Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Writing by Adam Tanner; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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