Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, has been cited as a precedent for Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and incorporation into the Russian Federation. Epidamn Zeqo writes that this comparison is flawed and could create a dangerous precedent for other regions of the world. He argues that the immediate concern is that similar reasoning could be adopted in eastern Ukraine, but events could also have much wider significance for global territorial disputes.
Crimea’s regional Parliament voted to become independent a week before it held its referendum asking whether to remain part of Ukraine or reunite with Russia. Following the referendum, Crimea became a de facto and de jure part of Russia. Interestingly, the independence bill referenced the precedent of Kosovo’s independence. There is more than just hypocrisy in this comparison, rightly deemed “shameful” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Kosovo’s independence was negotiated with the international community and was an affirmation of the international order. Had Albania annexed Kosovo and been supported by the international community, only then would it have been a valid precedent for Putin’s revisionist acts in Russia’s Near Abroad. The comparison is therefore deeply flawed.
Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation; therefore, Crimea is a successful case of irredentism – annexation of another state’s territories on the grounds of common ethnicity or prior historical possession. What is happening in Ukraine poses serious security risks for Europe by pointing to a return of the tsarist concept of “Greater Russia”. The nightmare scenario for the Euro-Atlantic community is if Crimea intensifies cases of irredentism in eastern Ukraine, which is now experiencing similar tensions, or even in the Baltics and Poland.
The widespread international recognition of new countries has been extremely rare in recent years, with a few exceptions such as Kosovo, East Timor and South Sudan. To gain de jure recognition as an independent state is like a nation winning an once-in-a-lifetime lottery ticket purchased at the painful expense of the people. Kosovo Albanians were subjected to apartheid, forcefully expelled by Serbian forces and threatened by genocide. Sacrifice buys the ticket, but winning the lottery is something else altogether.
Many nations have sacrificed in vain without gaining international recognition. Kosovo’s unique circumstances can only occur once every 2,000 years. Kosovo was a unique situation in the Balkans. The misconstruction of the precedent of Kosovo is the result of an intense Serbian and Russian propaganda effort, with the ultimate goal being to threaten the legitimacy of Kosovo’s independence. It is an amalgamated lie with a short lifespan, but one that has gained some ground in Europe, with pro-independence votes planned in Scotland and Catalonia.
Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has asserted that “Russia never wanted to understand what was happening in Kosovo and it constantly tried to block the aspiration of its peoples.” It should be remembered also that the case of Kosovo is an innovation for humanity and a triumph of the advanced Euro-Atlantic concept of multiculturalism; the solution for Kosovo derived from an international agreement between the UN, the US, the EU and Kosovo itself. Putin has turned Crimea into a domestic equation and the archetype of hegemonic violence.
Crimea might have won the self-determination lottery fixed by Russia, but this will come at great cost for its peoples and the continent. Crimea’s re-unification with Russia is not just another case of irredentism; it will prove the fact that the concept of legitimacy can be falsified. In this case, legitimacy is a mystification and falsification and has no comparison with Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
Kosovo’s narrative in Putin’s revisionist strategy is one of the biggest falsifications and ultimately a conceptual trap. Putin is reinterpreting the precedent of Kosovo in an attempt to gain de jure legitimacy for ethnic Russian “breakaway” regions in its Near Abroad, whilst at the same time vehemently rejecting Kosovo’s legitimacy as an independent country. Moreover, Kosovo, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, carries religious baggage. Putin, like Milosevic 22 years ago, uses religion and ethnicity to fuel respective conflicts and justify intervention.
The Euro-Atlantic community also cites Kosovo, albeit in the context of extraordinary humanitarian concerns such as those in Libya and Syria. When on the defensive, it quickly re-declares it as a sui generis case. In this sense, one cannot blame the West; after all, Kosovo is an important symbol of the orchestrated effort of the international community to save innocent people from genocide. Meanwhile, Crimea stands to create a dangerous precedent of irredentism for Europe’s Russian speaking minorities, and it ultimately points to a return of the tsarist concept of “Greater Russia”.
De facto Greater Russia
What happened in Crimea, and may yet happen in eastern Ukraine, can be seen as a war between two concepts: the old retrograde concept of annexation versus the Euro-Atlantic concept of modernity and legality. Last year, Russia had won some ground against the West for the tolerance it showed towards Syria. In Crimea, Putin has returned to old geopolitical equations and formulas, fit for the bipolar system of the past.
However, if Crimea is compared to Kosovo then Russia is playing the role of Serbia, not the US. Slobodan Milosevic was the father of Greater Serbia; Putin is the father of Greater Russia. The difference is that Putin controls the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal and has veto power at the UN. Having said that, the nature of Realpolitk, in the context of international law, has changed considerably since then. Putin does understand the necessity to gain de jure legitimacy over Crimea. His misinterpretation of the precedent of Kosovo serves exactly this purpose.
Putin has so far benefited from the “frozen conflicts” strategically located in Russia’s near abroad region, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In this sense, the status quo of the “frozen conflict” might be considered as the preparatory stage for the de facto creation of “Greater Russia”. But Crimea’s reunification with Russia heralds a new stage for the de jure legitimisation of Greater Russia. Russia’s defensive nationalism, which sees western actions in Ukraine as aggressive, and its hypocritical stance on Crimea and Kosovo’s independence, cannot justify this revisionist plan.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea seems to be a fait accompli and it has set a dangerous precedent of irredentism that will challenge regional security in Eurasia. Moreover, if Crimea also becomes a precedent itself, allowing major powers with a permanent seat on the Security Council to police and intervene in their near abroad at will, then it could have catastrophic global consequences – one need only think of East Asia.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared at New Eastern Europe. This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Epidamn Zeqo holds an MSc in European Political Economy from the London School of Economics and a dual MA in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St. Andrews. Zeqo has worked as a Research Analyst for Equiteq LLP and International Business and Diplomatic Exchange.