In the recent outpouring of condemnation over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, commentators have sharply rebuked the Kremlin’s discursive construction of the crisis. Putin’s justifications for military intervention are invariably chastised as phoney – a mere cover-up for his strong-arm tactics and nationalistic ambitions. Russia’s media outlets are dismissed as peddling an addictive diet of lies.
These criticisms are well-founded: it is hardly credible to defend the legality of either the Crimean referendum – which rubber-stamped an annexation that had de facto already occurred – or Russia’s military attack – which violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity. What is much less valid, though, is the frantic attempt by Western leaders and media commentators to categorically dismiss any comparison between Crimea and the countless secessions, coups and undemocratic regime changes that Western countries regularly support.
The scramble for arguments
The scramble for arguments redoubled as Vladimir Putin invoked Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence – which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) judged legal in a 2010 ruling – as a precedent for Crimea’s break with Ukraine. Angela Merkel called any comparison between the two cases 'shameful.' A string of commentators have attempted to shore up the notion that Kosovo’s independence, which followed a 1999 NATO strike, was an expression of international due process, genuinely motivated by a dutiful concern for humanitarianism.
Paul Linden-Retek and Evan Brewer amongst others, argue that Kosovo's independence was declared against a domestic legal order that did not impede or prevent it. Conversely, Ukraine's constitution strongly affirms that Crimea is a constituent part of Ukraine. They also suggest that the egregious human rights violations that took place in Kosovo in the run-up to NATO's intervention – such violations are unquestionably not the same in Ukraine – confer on Kosovo, but not on Crimea, a right to secede. Kosovo’s independence, sponsored vigorously by the US and EU, supposedly conforms to the rule of [international] law.
There is little contextual difference between Kosovo's and Crimea's secession claims.
These arguments are plainly spurious. UN Security Council Resolution 1244 empowered an international administration mission in the aftermath of NATO’s intervention and provided for the activation of a status settlement process. In the preamble, it also unequivocally reaffirmed the ‘commitment of all [UN] Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [FRY] and the other States of the region,’ including, evidently, the FRY's successor states, such as the Republic of Serbia, from which Kosovo seceded.
There is little contextual difference between Kosovo's and Crimea's secession claims: whatever their moral and political merits, both are made against a constitutional backdrop that asserts territorial integrity, and more or less explicitly proscribes secession. The role of foreign powers in the two secessions is also very similar. NATO's military intervention, like Russia's, was not authorised by the UN Security Council; although it followed a multilateral process of conflict mediation, the military action itself was blatantly unilateral. The transition from UN administration to independent statehood involved an unprecedented mobilisation of development assistance – in 2009, Kosovo was the world’s second-largest recipient of aid in per capita terms, after Palestine (excluding small island states). This ‘humanitarian feat’ belies the crude power politics taking place behind the scenes. The pronouncements of the UN body appointed to lead the status settlement process (UNOSEK), which recommended [supervised] independence, were never officially adopted in a Security Council resolution, let alone by the UN General Assembly. Rather, they were implemented unilaterally at the behest of Western powers. The US and the EU were directly involved in the ‘grooming’ of Kosovo’s post-independence political elite. The current president is sometimes mocked as the ‘envelope lady,’ owing to the rumour of her nomination being foisted on the Kosovo Assembly by a letter from the US Embassy.
Appealing to the undoubted human rights violations then taking place, to defend Kosovo’s Western-backed secession is no less promising, if we are willing to stick to the letter of international law. As Linden-Retek and Brewer remind us, it is a regrettable shortcoming of global governance that the right of remedial secession is entirely absent from the international legal order. Secession may only legally take place with the consent of both the seceding party and the parent state (as in the South Sudan case), or in the context of colonialism or foreign occupation. None of these conditions apply to Kosovo. In fact, even the 2010 ICJ ruling, which focused narrowly on the legality of ‘declaring’ independence, rather than the international status of Kosovo, regrettably stopped short of stipulating a remedial right of secession, although it had an opportunity to do so. So how could Kosovo's independence possibly be considered legal as a case of remedial secession? The legal right to secede does not exist in international law, and yet Linden-Retek and Brewer pretend that it applies to Kosovo.
In a last-ditch attempt to avert comparisons between Crimea and Kosovo, other Western commentators have proclaimed that Kosovo had a constitutional right to secede under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. This is plainly wrong. Under the ex-Yugoslavia’s complex federal system, only constituent republics enjoyed this right, while the Federation’s two autonomous provinces (including Kosovo) did not. In fact, the best part of the reason why Kosovo never attained full republic status was precisely Belgrade’s fear of Albanian irredentism in Serbia’s southern province.
For most of the 1990s, Kosovo was an Abkhazia of sorts that neither the West nor Russia showed much interest in.
Like the 16 March referendum in Crimea, the referendum that Ibrahim Rugova – the historic leader of the Kosovo Albanians – organised in September 1991 was a clandestine affair; clearly, it was also unconstitutional under Yugoslav law. Only ethnic Albanians took part in the poll, and only the Republic of Albania agreed to recognise the self-proclaimed ‘Republic of Kosova.’ For most of the 1990s, Kosovo was an Abkhazia of sorts that neither the West nor Russia showed much interest in. The West only became suddenly involved in the Kosovo crisis several years after the onset of Serbian oppression in the province. That is, when it realised that a Serbia governed by Milošević was a stumbling block on the road to exporting neo-liberal capitalism to what Will Bartlett has called the ‘European super-periphery.’ Exposing Serbia’s misdeeds in Kosovo and defeating Milošević in a ‘humanitarian’ war appeared the most convenient strategy to induce regime change and install a Western-friendly government in Serbia, too.
After the UN take-over, no popular consultation on Kosovo’s status was ever repeated.
After the UN take-over, no popular consultation on Kosovo’s status was ever repeated. Although the UN could have guaranteed a procedurally fair vote (at least relative to the 1991 referendum), the buoyant support of Western countries for Kosovo’s independence, which Serbia doggedly objects to, sufficed to bestow a veneer of legality and justice on a move of crude realpolitik.
Six years after the declaration of independence, just over half of the UN family recognises the Kosovo state. It is hard to see how the other half could be under the stupefying influence of Russia’s lies and propaganda, as another Western commentator speculates. In fact, the US and EU’s aid conditionality might better explain why many developing countries – initially opposed to Kosovo’s independence – are now beginning to recognise the country. I recall attending a talk by the current US Ambassador in Pristina, during which she explained how her team aggressively lobbied for Kosovo’s recognition during her previous posting in Central Asia.
Taking a reality check on Western interventionism is not just a ‘fun game.’
Taking a reality check on Western interventionism is not just a ‘fun game.’ Much as Kosovo’s statehood may be defended (and rightly so) as the only viable strategy for security and development in an ethnically divided region, one should make no mistake about its geopolitics. Where Crimea is concerned, the West’s conceit of liberal interventionism, and its claims that it is standing on the moral high ground of legality and humanitarianism – in contrast to Russia’s naked militarism – simply does not pass muster.