THE HAGUE/PRISTINA (Reuters) - The World Court rules on Kosovo's unilateral secession from Serbia on Thursday in a decision that could have implications for Belgrade's EU membership drive and separatist movements around the globe.
Serbia hopes the non-binding ruling by the International Court of Justice will strengthen its claim to rule the province, while Kosovo is seeking fresh impetus to its claim to statehood.
The ruling is also being watched by other nations grappling with their own separatist movements, especially Russia and Spain which have backed Serbia.
Here are some scenarios for what could happen next:
A ruling recognising the legality of Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence would likely trigger recognition by more countries, in addition to the 69 that have already done so. Analysts say that any of the five EU countries that have so far resisted recognition -- Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Spain -- might now recognize Kosovo.
Serbia could take measures against Kosovo, including border closures or a trade embargo, analysts say. Belgrade could also disrupt electricity supplies to Kosovo, as well as telephone and internet services which are all still closely linked with Serbia. Belgrade has ruled out a military response, however. But it could again seek to bring the case of Kosovo to the United Nations with the help of its traditional ally Russia, a permanent U.N. Security Council member.
Although Serbia has vowed that Kosovo will remain within its national borders, letting go of the region would greatly ease its path toward EU membership. That would bring much-needed foreign investment and trade. The status of 120,000 remaining Serbs, who live mostly in the north of Kosovo, and the security of medieval Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, would likely have to be resolved through separate negotiations.
A ruling in Serbia's favour would deepen the impasse and likely harden the fight for independence among the 2 million-strong Albanian majority. The ruling could also spark instability among Albanian minorities in neighbouring Macedonia and in Serbia's southern Presevo Valley. Although many former guerrillas from the now-defunct Kosovo Liberation Army gave up their weapons after the 1998-99 war, there are an estimated 400,000 illegal weapons in Kosovo, many in the hands of criminal gangs. Small nationalist groups -- both Serb and Albanian -- have pledged to take up arms to defend their respective causes, but the 10,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo says it is not expecting a major upsurge in violence.
Such a move would allow both governments to claim victory, solidifying ruling coalitions in both Belgrade and Pristina. Although it will not recognize Kosovo's independence, Belgrade could begin direct talks with Pristina over practical matters such as travel and trade. Serbia might also offer Kosovo land swaps. Under a deal which is -- unofficially -- considered an option in both capitals, Belgrade would reclaim predominantly ethnic Serb northern Kosovo in return for relinquishing to Pristina the two Albanian-dominated municipalities of Presevo and Bujanovac in Serbia's south, close to Macedonia.
A decision in favour of independence could embolden separatist movements in other regions.
The Basques and Catalans are seeking greater autonomy from Spain. Cyprus is split between the Mediterranean island's Turkish and Greek populations.
Russia, which took two decades to crush a separatist rebellion in its Chechnya province, has recognised Georgia's rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, but few others have followed its lead.
Conversely, a ruling in favour of Serbia could make nations with separatist movements more aggressive in maintaining their territorial integrity.
If the court rules in favour of Kosovo independence, Serbs who reject secession could respond by seeking to deepen self-governance in the Serb-dominated north. Serbia could strengthen a network of parallel structures already present in Kosovo, providing administrative, schooling and health services for the Serb minority, and cementing a de facto partition. Serbs in the north would likely reject any cooperation with the EU mission but not ask the NATO peace force to leave. The West does not expect a major exodus of Serbs but some will continue to leave gradually as many have done since the war. The Kosovan government and the EU mission might send police to restore Pristina's authority in the north, though that could trigger Serb unrest and a prolonged low-level conflict.
Serbia's governing coalition could face difficulties over the direction the country should take, if the court rules against Belgrade on Kosovo. Coalition ties between pro-Western Democrats of the President Boris Tadic and the Socialist Party of Serbia, led by Interior Minister Ivica Dacic, could sour to the point of triggering early elections, though they would unlikely come before early 2011. The conservative Serbian Progressive Party of Tomislav Nikolic is expected to further consolidate its position as the single largest opposition party.
Reporting by Reed Stevenson in The Hague, Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Jon Boyle