Kosovo may have won the last battle when it declared independence nearly two years ago, but Serbia is back on the offensive - even as another threat to its territorial integrity emerges.
On December 1, hearings called at the request of Serbia began at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on the legality of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence. The court will come to a non-binding, advisory decision sometime in 2010, yet this will satisfy no one fully, as the ICJ cannot rule clearly on one side or the other: finding the declaration illegal would probably force the "recognisers" of Kosvo, who include the US and much of the EU, to ignore the ruling, thereby undermining the highest court in the world; approving it as legal would lay a dangerous precedent for separatist regions around the world.
So, partly for its own sake, the ICJ will try and fudge. What a compromise ruling would look like, however, isn't clear. One solution could be to maintain that Serbia asked the wrong question: it wasn't Kosovo's provisional institutions of self-government that declared independence, but its democratically-elected representatives. Another argument is that a unilateral declaration of independence cannot be either legal or illegal, it just is; the legality of its recognition by other states is another matter, but that was not the question posed to the court.
Serbia isn't expecting a straightforward ruling and has other reasons why it brought the case to the ICJ. It wants to show the world that it is willing to pursue the matter via non-violent means, hoping thereby that, whatever the outcome, this will finally remove Kosovo from the top of the agenda in its foreign relations - particularly with Brussels. At the same time, Belgrade knows that the issue needs a pragmatic resolution if it wants to join the EU, since the bloc won't want to import another Cyprus-like scenario.
The deeper reasoning behind the court case is that Serbia wants to bring the Kosovars back to the negotiating table. If the ruling exerts sufficient pressure, Pristina could be coerced into returning the majority-Serb north of the region as part of a deal. "Giving Serbia northern Kosovo in return for letting the rest go is a solution that should have been looked at it in a lot more detail," reckons James Ker-Lindsay, a Southeast Europe expert at the London School of Economics. "If this allows Kosovo to be recognised as a fully independent state, then surely this is a price worth paying."
An alternative bargaining chip is the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Albanians. The prospect of a land swap will, however, likely be frowned upon by an international community wary of further ethnic homogenisation in the Balkans.
No more avoiding Vojvodina
In a bizarre coincidence, the day before the court hearings began, the Serbian parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill granting further autonomy to another province, Vojvodina.
Located north of the Danube, Vojvodina was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918 and remains Serbia's most ethnically diverse region. Blessed with fertile earth and an established industrial base, it is also the most economically advanced part of the country. Vojvodina is in many ways the polar opposite of Kosovo, though the renegade province to the south has focused minds among the already outspoken Hungarian minority, who number some 14% of the local population.
It has also intensified Serbian paranoia. Critics fear the new legislation could lead to eventual secession (one opposition MP threw her shoe in protest during a particularly stormy session). Indeed, while it describes the province as an "indivisible part of Serbia," the law grants the population of Vojvodina the right to hold a referendum on independence. It also creates a regional government with a prime minister and a miniature diplomatic service, and confirms the status of Novi Sad, the region's largest city and Serbia's second largest, as the capital.
Scare-mongering opponents will have felt vindicated on December 16 when, during a high-profile visit to Vojvodina, former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban talked about "re-uniting" the nation. Yet with its 67% Serbian population, Vojvodina is not Kosovo and so an ethnically driven independence movement would not gain much support. Moreover, Vojvodina's grievances are more financial than political: as the country's wealthiest region it contributes more into the state coffers than it receives. The 2010 budget will fail if the four members of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians in the ruling coalition stick to their promise to veto it.
As with the ICJ case, in passing the law on Vojvodina Belgrade wants to show the world - and particularly Brussels - that today's government respects its minorities and recognises the need to decentralise. One can only hope this round won't leave Serbia with a bloody nose.