Back in the day, political commentators compared U.S. and Western support for Kosovo’s independence to a Pandora’s box. The recognition of Kosovan right to independence, it was warned, could jeopardize the stability of the international order by setting a dangerous precedent for other separatist movements as well as encouraging big states to reshape the international order through the use of force.
Fast forward half a decade, Russia pours its troops into the Crimean region, justifying the intervention on the grounds of protecting a predominantly ethnic Russian population and guaranteeing their right to self-determination. The argument by some Kremlin officials, including Vladimir Putin, is that there are similarities between Kosovo and Crimea, and that the precedent of the former is substantial to justify Russian policy towards the latter.
This argument is a false analogy, and there are three key differences between Kosovo and Crimea that render Kremlin’s argument as moot:
Firstly, the Ukrainian constitution states that any territorial alternation to its national borders should be decided through a nation-wide referendum. Neither does the constitution of the autonomous republic of Crimea empower its Parliament or Government to initiate a referendum for independence, let alone joining the Russian Federation.
Kosovo, in contrast, was empowered by the 1974 constitution of Yugoslavia with the right to secession. This right was exercised in a 1992 referendum, with a clear majority opting secession and independence. Serbia did not recognize the vote and the Yugoslav Army, led by Slobodan Milosevic, initiated a campaign of terror and crackdown against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.
This leads us to our second point: in Kosovo, NATO-led intervention came at the zenith of persecution and expulsion of ethnic Albanians. There were clear and undisputed violations of human rights and potential for a full-scale genocide by the Yugoslav army. Indeed, Milosevic was later arrested and charged with war crimes including crimes against humanity and genocide in connection with his actions throughout the Balkans.
In Crimea, there were no such persecutions, nor have new central authorities in Kyiv hinted or acted in a way to threaten the livelihood and peace of the ethnically Russian majority in the region. Unlike the decade-long violent standoff between ethnic Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo, the multi-ethnic Crimean population has lived peacefully with the rest of Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There have been no violent campaigns aimed at ethnic Russians.
Thirdly, it took Kosovo eight years following NATO military intervention to declare its independence from Serbia. The process of complying with international criteria required for recognition was followed through while Kosovo was under the administration of the United Nations. As such, the negotiations for a peaceful resolution in Kosovo included an internationally supervised process, where all parties to the dispute were present.
In Crimea, the referendum process was hectically rushed and held against the background of Russian military presence in a timeframe of less than three weeks. Also, the Russians had monopolized and exercised full control over the process, and unlike Western forces in Kosovo, immediately moved on annexing the newly-recognized territory as its own.
With the abovementioned points, it is clear that there is very little credibility for Crimea-Kosovo parallels. Instead, the Kosovo precedent should be seen as a sugarcoat for Kremlin’s aggressive policy of land-grab and annexation. With Crimea already being absored into the Russian Federation, the ball is now in the international community’s court to reverse the land-grab, or at least deter Russia from encroaching on other undisputed Ukrainian territories.