On Thursday 22nd July, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will finally issue its long-awaited and increasingly anticipated advisory, non-binding opinion on the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence. Though speculation suggests that, given the complexity and contentiousness of the issue at hand, the ICJ will likely refrain from ruling decisively in favour of either one side or the other, it will have important implications for the future of the disputed territory.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on February 17th 2008, following the breakdown of negotiations over its final status. Having vehemently rejected the move, Serbia requested that the United Nations General Assembly send the issue to the ICJ for its consideration; which was approved after 77 countries voted in favour, 74 refrained and only six voted against. In December 2009, some thirty states (including Albania, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, China, Cyprus, Spain, the USA, Russia and the UK) and the “authors of the unilateral declaration of independence” participated in oral proceedings before the ICJ; demonstrating the high-level of interest in the case.

Though Kosovo has to date been recognized by 69 UN member states, the EU remains beset by a lack of consensus, with Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Romania and Cyprus firmly withholding recognition; as such, Kosovo's EU accession prospects remain blocked at the present time. Whilst Kosovo secured enough votes to join both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, future membership of the UN currently seems unlikely given the continued opposition of Russia and China, both permanent veto-holding members of the UN Security Council.

Should the ICJ come down in favour of Serbia, then it will further stall the process of recognition of Kosovo's independence and provide new momentum for a resumption of status talks. Should the Court rule in Kosovo's favour, however, then it can expect to enjoy a flurry of recognitions – though not necessarily sufficient to secure consensus within the EU – that will help cement its status as an independent state. The most likely outcome, however, is for the ICJ to deliver a somewhat ambiguous ruling that will leave both sides claiming victory; with a messy diplomatic battle to follow as each contends that the ICJ sided with their particular stance.

Following the ruling, Serbia is expected to call for a debate in the United Nations General Assembly and seek a new resolution on renewed negotiations over Kosovo's status. Having previously offered “more than autonomy and less than independence” for Kosovo, Serbia is now rumoured to be seeking independence or greater autonomy for the predominantly Kosovo Serb north of the disputed territory; possibly in return for a part of the predominantly ethnic Albanian populated south of Serbia (namely, the municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa, which are commonly referred to locally as the 'Preševo Valley'). Any further changes of borders in the Balkans on the basis of ethnic lines, however, would set a dangerous precedent elsewhere in the region, particularly for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM).

Tensions in Kosovo, particularly the north, continue to mount ahead of the ruling. In early-July, one Kosovo Serb was killed and ten others wounded after a grenade was thrown at a group protesting the opening of a Kosovo government office in the Serb part of the divided town of Mitrovica. Several days later, a Kosovo Serb member of the Kosovo Assembly, Petar Miletic (of the Independent Liberal party) was shot outside his apartment in northern Mitrovica; whilst a grenade was thrown at the house of the editor-in-chief of Radio Kosovska Mitrovica, Caslav Milisavlevic, in Zvecan, though no-one was injured. The ICJ's ruling will do little to mitigate these existing tensions – and may in fact add to them in the short-term – meaning that the international community's peacekeeping function remains vital.

Whilst Serbia's pursuit of an ICJ ruling temporarily shifted the issue from the political to the legal arena, the question of Kosovo's status is now firmly back in the realm of international and domestic politics. Though widely hoped that the ICJ's opinion will finally pave the way for talks between the Kosovo and Serbian governments on 'technical' matters, the issue of status will remain a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for some time to come. In the meantime, the international community particularly the EU, has a key role to play in maintaining stability, facilitating dialogue between the conflicting parties at a multitude of levels and in strengthening Kosovo's institutions to ensure that they are more effective at upholding the rule of law.

Ian Bancroft is a co-founder of TransConflict, an organization undertaking conflict and post-conflict transformation projects and research throughout the Western Balkans, and a regular columnist for The Guardian on Western Balkan affairs.