The International Court of Justice's ruling in favour of Kosovo's independence has stunned both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, while prompting fears that it may encourage separatist movements the world over. Considered opinion was that the court would sit on the fence, allowing Serbs and Albanians to draw their own interpretations. Instead, the judges' non-binding advice sides more clearly with the Albanians than anyone expected.
The outcome is a disaster for Serbia. Effectively, this terminates Belgrade's campaign to use international law to coerce its former province – over which Nato went to war in 1999 and which declared independence in 2008 – to accept a return to Serbian suzerainty. Now, if Serbia agrees to talk to the Kosovo government, it will do so from a far weaker position.
Serbs feel angry and humiliated. They still view Kosovo as part of their historic birthright. But most of the rest of the region is breathing a sigh of relief. All Kosovo's other immediate neighbours have recognised its independence, as have 22 of the 27 EU members. All remembered the dismal last years of Serbia's rule – the uprisings by the Albanians, the savage reprisals, the gunrunning, the flights of refugees. Whatever their misgivings about separatist movements in principle they prefer the relative stability that has at last settled on this fought-over land ever since Nato expelled the Serb authorities more than a decade ago.
This acquiescence should be taken into account by Cassandras who maintain that the court ruling gives a green light to separatist groups everywhere; that recognising Kosovo today means recognising South Ossetia tomorrow and a host of other would-be statelets next week. The pessimism behind this thinking should be resisted – or we may as well go back to the system of "Holy Alliances" established in 1815 to freeze the Continent's borders in perpetuity, and invoked to crush the independence revolts of Poland and Hungary. No universally applicable law can decide such matters. Law can only inform the decision-making; ultimately, cases such as Kosovo's must be considered on their own merits.