Much has been said recently about similarities between Crimea and Kosova’s declaration of independence, mostly by Vladimir Putin and others advocating for a Russian Crimea, such as the Russian state-supported media. Others have tried to examine this comparison further in the face of blatant disregard of facts.
I’ve been following the debate from the sidelines, trying to avoid the discussion, largely because from my point of view, there is no comparison between the history, the politics, and the legal outcomes in the two cases.
Let’s start with the case of Kosova, and the alleged precedent Putin says Kosova’s experience set for his annexation of Crimea.
Kosova is located in southeast Europe, in a region of Europe commonly known as the Balkans. It was a constitutionally autonomous province with special privileges in the Yugoslav Federation between 1974 and 1989, a time during which Albanians, the majority population of Kosova, enjoyed equal rights to Serbs, Turks, and other minorities inhabiting Kosova. During this period, Kosovars (Albanians, Serbs, Turks, Bosniaks, Roma, and others) developed their own Constitution (PDF, Albanian), assembly, administration, judiciary, as well as maintained veto power in the Yugoslav parliament, a privilege normally reserved to member republics – in other words, Kosova was a de facto state with virtually all the rights and privileges of other republics such as Serbia.
The serious unrests in Kosova began following the revocation of Kosova’s autonomy in 1989, and the revocation of the Kosovar institutional independence vis-a-vis Serbia.
- By June 1990, the Milosevic government shut down the Kosova Assembly, citing unusual circumstances, hijacking decision-making powers from Prishtina, and transferring them to Serbia.
- Shortly after that, the Kosovar public TV and radio station was overtaken by Serbian staff, and the Albanian language broadcasts shut down.
- In 1991, the Albanian daily newspaper Rilindja was also suspended by the State authorities and incorporated into the state-run Panorama company.
- The amended Serbian Constitution now included Kosova in its scope, and Kosova’s constitution was deemed null and void by the Serbian parliament, without meaningful consultation, engagement, or involvement of the Kosovar public;
- Serbian replaced Albanian as the official language used in government institutions, where previously, Albanian and Serbian shared official language status;
- Prominent visitors and observers, including the US Senator Robert Dole and the UN Special Representative on the UN Commission of Human Rights, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (my father, who was beaten by the Serbian military, is brought up in this OSCE report) commented on the Serbian efforts to deprive Albanians of basic human rights, including the right to political membership, education, employment, free expression, and so on as early as 1992. They, of course, referred to the Serbian move to dismiss Albanians from the health care system, the public service and other jobs simply because they happened to be Albanian, replacing them with Serb and Montenegrin officials and employees, or expelling Albanian teachers and students from public schools simply because the language of instruction was Albanian.
- In 1991, Serbia passed a law whereby it granted favourable credit conditions to Serbs and Montenegrins wanting to move to work in agriculture in Kosova (Official Gazette of Serbia 43/91) – the intention behind this measure was to flood Kosova with Serb in-migration, thereby ensuring that Albanians eventually became a minority in Kosova.
- Arbitrary detention and arrests, torture of Albanians became a norm in the 1990-1998 period.
Comparing Kosova’s case to Crimea would be akin to suggesting that Albania, whose people are the linguistic brethren and next-door neighbours to Kosova’s majority Albanians, annexed Kosova for itself, following Serbia’s repression of Albanians, in the fashion that Russia recently annexed Crimea, citing fears of ethnic repression. To be clear, Kosova was NOT annexed by Albania, so the comparison with Crimea fails at this level.
Instead, Serbian nationalist efforts to undermine Albanian presence in Kosova in the 1990s continued and the situation exacerbated until 1998, when the Serbian paramilitary committed the tragic Jashari massacre – for three days straight, the Serbian troops shelled the family compound of the Kosova Liberation Army leader, Adem Jashari, and in the process, deliberately targeted and killed 60 other members of his family, including an infant. Forceful expulsions from communities across Kosova ensued, and within a year:
- Over one million Kosovars had become internally displaced or expelled to neighbouring countries;
- Over thirteen thousand Kosovars, most of whom were civilians, were killed;
- Twenty thousand Kosovar women and children were raped by the Serb paramilitary troops and nationalist volunteers,
- Immediately following the end of the war, nearly ten thousand Kosovars (mostly Albanians, as well as Serbs, and Roma), murdered during or as the war ended, were missing. The remains of most of these individuals were found in mass graves often far away from where the civilians had been murdered. Today, nearly two thousand are still missing.
- Virtually all roads, infrastructure, homes, schools, factories were destroyed.
When the international community sought to intervene in ending the bloodshed in Kosova, Russia and China threatened to veto any UN Security Council resolutions authorizing a military/peacekeeping force. When instead, the United States realized it couldn’t get a resolution passed in the Security Council, it chose to act in defiance of the Russian calls to inaction while citing non-interference in internal matters of a sovereign state (Serbia), it took 78 days of repeated NATO air strikes for the Alliance to force Milosevic into peace.
With the arrival of the international community to war-ravaged Kosova under the UN-passed resolution 1244 (agreed to by Russia), Kosovars could rebuild their homes and communities, and hope for a better, more peaceful future. Serbia’s rule over Kosova was suspended as the international community guided the reconstruction of the Kosovar physical, political, and social institutions.
In late 2005, the UN Secretary General, with Russia and other members’ approval, appointed a Special Envoy who was tasked with devising a solution to Kosova’s final status. Could Kosova return to Serbian rule? Could it be cantonized into regions, as the Swiss model suggested? Did it need to be supervised by the international community indefinitely? After over a year of helicopter- and one-on-one diplomacy, negotiations about Kosova’s final status stalled, with no resolution in sight. The Envoy concluded that “the negotiations’ potential to produce any mutually agreeable outcome on Kosovo’s status is exhausted. No amount of additional talks, whatever the format, will overcome this impasse. The time has come to resolve Kosovo’s status…I have come to the conclusion that the only viable option for Kosovo is independence, to be supervised for an initial period by the international community.” In his memorandum, the Special Envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President, laid out the conditions the Kosovar government had to fulfill to complete its supervised independence and achieve full-on, big-boy independence. In his rationale, Ahtisaari concluded that Kosova’s relationship with Serbia had too tense a history for Kosovars to return to Serbian rule.
So, let’s be clear on this: The international community (through the Special Envoy) concluded that Kosova’s history with Serbia did not allow for a return to an autonomous status. That is important to note, because Putin has been stating that Kosova unilaterally declared independence from Serbia – Kosovars may have exercised their right to self-determination by declaring independence without Serbia’s approval, but it is argued in the UN memorandum that by virtue of committing grave acts of violence and ethnic cleansing against the majority Albanian population (and most non-Serb populations), Serbia forfeit its right to sovereign rule over Kosova. This is NOT the same as Crimea choosing to voluntarily break away from Ukraine without a history of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or other repression.
In February 2008, the Kosovar government declared independence, after a nine-year international administration of Kosova following the bloody war waged by Serbia. To date, 107 states, including 23 out of the 28 EU states, as well as Canada, UK, and the United States, have recognized Kosova as an independent state, despite Serbia’s relentless lobbying using any means possible to halt these recognitions, including by using fear tactics in countries like Canada, where it argued that Canada’s recognition created a precedent for Quebec’s secession – Canadians shrugged, as did Quebecers. There was no comparison to be made between the two – Quebecers hadn’t, after all, experienced a civil war verging on genocide and war crimes that Kosovars had gone through.
At the request of Serbia at the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary General submitted three questions to the International Court of Justice. In 2010, the International Court of Justice published an advisory opinion on whether or not Kosova’s declaration of independence was permissible under international law. In the opinion, the ICJ stated that Kosova’s independence declaration was permissible because declarations of independence are not contrary to international law when they involve the people of territories “subject to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation”. Indeed, the provision in international law allowing for peoples’ right to self-determination made it possible for the establishment of a great many post-colonial states, so claiming that sovereignty trumps self-determination in instances of historic repression would be ignoring the reality of world history, especially in the last 60 years. It bears reminding that the Court’s conclusion pointed to Kosova’s declaration of independence being sui generis. In other words, Kosova’s declaration of independence could not set a precedent because it was a unique case, and it was a specific case, not one to which other secessionist movements could compare their situation. By the way, this was not the United States or the European Union deciding that Kosova had a right to declare independence. The body deciding Kosova’s declaration of independence was legal and legitimate under international law was the International Court of Justice.
Kosova went through a supervised independence period over four years, to ensure that the Kosovar state institutions were inclusive and democratic, and finally, at the end of 2012, became fully independent.
Now, turning to Crimea, what remains to compare? While discussing identity, Wittgenstein famously stated that “to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense.” Earlier this week, I watched a Kosovar current affairs show in which the commentators concluded that the only thing the cases of Kosova and [K]rimea (spelled in Albanian) had in common was the letter K. I tend to agree.
Crimea is a region of Ukraine that declared independence for a day in 1992, then revoked it, remaining a region in Ukraine in return for increased autonomy. Minor tensions between Ukrainians and Russians notwithstanding, no violence appears to have been a trend in the region, nor did Russian speakers fear using their language. In fact, it appears Russian is commonly spoken everywhere in Ukraine, and anti-Russian sentiment is non-existent, especially when, during the recent Evromaidan protests in Ukraine, in one instance, protestors chanted “Long live Russia! Long live Russia!”. As open-minded as I try to be, I can’t imagine most Kosovars shouting “Long live Serbia” in the main square in Prishtina anytime soon.
A month ago, Crimea was a region that was voluntarily occupied by Russian military troops (even though the Kremlin denied they were Russian) after the Russophile Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his post and fled to Russia. Crimean Russians now claim to live in an independent state after a referendum conducted without the consultation with or engagement of Ukraine, the country from which they sought to secede. Even in Kosova, where grave violence and decades of abuse characterized the relationship between Albanians and the neighbouring Serbia, the two factions were pressured by the international community to seek a common agreement on the future of Kosova. No such thing was ever encouraged by Russia in the case of Crimea over the last month. Kosova’s independence took five years to concretize (2008-2012), after all the supervision and conditionality the international community imposed on the Kosovar government. Somehow, Crimea unilaterally declared independence within a month and Putin concluded that its case was comparable to Kosova. And apples are oranges.
The Crimean secession poses more (rhetorical) questions than it provides answers, and its case bears no comparison to Kosova – Was the Russian majority historically and presently repressed and discriminated against in Ukraine? Did it witness grave acts of violence from the Ukrainians? Was its population’s property destroyed, pillaged, and its people raped, killed, expelled from their homes and communities? Timothy Snyder answers all these questions when he writes about “a country where millions of Russian-speakers lack basic rights. That country is the Russian Federation. There is a neighbouring country where tens of millions of Russian-speakers enjoy basic rights — despite the disruptions of a revolution and Russian invasion.” How does Russia’s action vis-a-vis Crimea and the use of the argument of protecting the Russian minority there affect the safety of Russian communities across Ukraine? If Putin’s concern really had been the well-being of Russians in Crimea, is it a safe strategy to expose other Russians living in Ukraine to potential attacks by ethno-nationalist Ukrainians? Knowing the history of Russo-Ukrainian inter-ethnic relations, I don’t think we can expect violence against Russians in Ukraine, but I do wonder to what extent this possibility was considered by the Putin administration, which used the protection of this ethno-linguistic community as justification for the action in Crimea. Already, there has been at least one publicly reported attack against a Ukrainian TV chief accused of being pro-Russian.
This is not the first time Russia has occupied and annexed the territory of a neighbouring state for purposes of its own expansionism and power showdowns – South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognized by 5 UN states (Vanuatu, bullied into recognizing their independence, eventually withdrew its recognition), are now officially economically and politically dependent on the Russian Federation, itself struggling to exist. Ukraine expert Nadiya Kravets co-wrote an excellent piece on the possible problems of Russia annexing an economically dependent territory like Crimea, and the issues it might pose for Russia’s future.
There are genuine cases of regions in different states where secession is approached in a reasonable manner. The self-determination of the people living in breakaway regions is possible if approached sensibly. Sensibility is sorely lacking in Russia’s recent takeover of Crimea: the action is comparable to the hypothetical example of United States annexing a Canadian province without the consultation or engagement with the federal government, and lacking any sort of legal framework to implement this politically unorthodox and illegal action. Of course, for those stating that Crimean residents largely supported the secession from Ukraine, it is important to note that regardless of their desires, being geopolitically part of a state territory requires that the region, pending a commonly agreed upon referendum (and referendum results clearly pointing to independence), develop a plan that will allow for the region’s transition to independence. But then again, logic is out the door in Russia’s actions towards Crimea in the recent past. Time will tell how provocative Russian nationalism will prove to be in eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians have also been itching to break away.
Crimea is no Kosova, and saying it is will not make it so.