VUK JEREMIC, Serbia's foreign minister, looked ashen. He knew what was coming. Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate general international law, said Hisashi Owada, the president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, in a non-binding advisory opinion. Ten judges voted in favour of this ruling, with four against. Serbia's strategy of attempting to outmanoeuvre its former secessionist province through the international court lay in ruins.
In Pristina, Kosovo's capital, cars began hooting in celebration. Cheers erupted from bars and cafes, where people had gathered to watch the judge deliver the court's opinion. Shkelzen Maliqi, a well-known intellectual and commentator, summed up what most Kosovars were thinking: "Perfect. Who would have expected such a clear answer?" In Belgrade there seemed no room for doubt either. "It was a classic knockout," said Braca Grubacic, an analyst. "I don't know how the government can get out of this."
To date 69 countries have recognised Kosovo's independence, including the US and 22 of the 27 EU member states. But Russia, China, Brazil, India and many other important countries have refused to follow suit. Whether a flood of new recognitions will follow today's ruling remains to be seen, but would not be surprising. It is, however, unlikely that China, with its eyes on Taiwan and Tibet, Russia, with its problems in Chechnya, and other countries in the world with secessionist movements will recognise Kosovo any time soon.
Of Kosovo's 2m people, 90% are ethnic Albanians who would rather fight than see a return of Serbian rule. In 1998 a guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, took up arms to fight the Serbs. In 1999 NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign which saw the expulsion of Serbian forces from all of Kosovo and Serbian rule from all but Serb areas. From then until February 2008 Kosovo came under UN administration.
Serbia contends that Kosovo, as a Serbian province rather than a republic of the former Yugoslavia, did not have the right to self-determination. On the eve of the court's ruling Mr Jeremic, the architect of the strategy of taking the question to the ICJ, said that if the court came out in favour of Kosovo, "no border in the world in the world would ever be secure".
The court had been widely expected to give an ambiguous answer. The fact that the opinion is heavily in Kosovo's favour leaves open the question of what Serbia will do now. It had planned to go to the General Assembly of the UN to demand new talks. Now that plan appears in jeopardy, if not doomed. The EU, however, has been planning talks between Kosovo and Serbia on technical matters.
Serbia's government will be rocked by this result. The Serbian Orthodox Church has called for bells to be rung out this afternoon and a protest rally has been called by Serbs in the divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica. In the last few weeks there have been three violent incidents there, resulting in one death. Mitrovica's Serbs have been preparing an armed response in case jubilant Albanians try to cross the river Ibar, which divides the city. In the wake of the opinion helicopters from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo have been circling above the city.
In the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decani in western Kosovo, Father Sava warns that he fears for the church's security. In the last few weeks he says Albanian teenagers have thrown stones at the monastery and hurled insults at the monks in a way reminiscent of the run-up to anti-Serbian riots in 2004. "We are in serious danger because we are seen as a symbol of Serbia, even though we are not acting politically," he says.
The monastery lies in the heartland of support for Ramush Haradinaj, Kosovo's former prime minister and leader of the main opposition party. Mr Haradinaj was acquitted of war crimes by the UN's war crimes tribunal in 2008, but yesterday was rearrested because the appeals chamber found his trial to have been marred by witness intimidation. The arrest leaves the way clear for Hashim Thaci, the prime minister, to move at a time of his own convenience towards elections, which he is likely to win now that the opposition has been effectively decapitated.
Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, is due to address the nation. Mr Jeremic has declared that the struggle will continue. Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, jubilantly declared: "God bless Kosovo!" But after the party Kosovo will remain one of the poorest parts of Europe, a country that does not control all of its territory and one that is riddled with corruption. Until now, Kosovo's leaders have been able to blame Serbian intransigence for their failure to implement reforms and improve living standards. That excuse will now lose some of its potency, especially if more countries recognise the state.
Serbia too faces problems. Its EU accession process has slowed of late. As Mr Grubacic points out, Mr Tadic had promised Serbs both the EU and Kosovo. Now neither looks likely. Yet while Serbia's EU bid may be stymied for now, it is certainly not dead. Dreams of Kosovo are another story.