In his celebrated speech to both houses of the Russian Parliament on 18th March 2014 President Putin makes reference to Kosovo, as a precedent for what had just happened  in Crimea.
What President Putin said was this:
“Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent – a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, […]. …the UN International Court agreed with this approach […] I quote: …’General international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence.’ Crystal clear, as they say.
“[…]. Here is a quote from another official document: the Written Statement of the United States of America […], submitted to the same UN International Court […]: ‘Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However this does not make them violations of international law.’ They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged. Over what? […]. For some reason things that Kosovo Albanians (and we have full respect for them) were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars in Crimea are not allowed. Again, one wonders why.”
President Putin makes three points: first, that the cases of Kosovo and Crimea are similar; then he cites the International Court’s opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence; and third, he quotes the US government submission to the Court in its case on Kosovo. I comment on these in reverse order, starting with the last since it is the least complicated.
President Putin’s last point is also the strangest. He is quoting the submission of the US government and not that of his own, which argued the opposite. It is odd to quote, in support of a case, an argument that you reject. President Putin might be making a point about the inconsistency of US policy, but it is President Putin who claims they are similar; so if anyone is applying double standards it seems to be him.
Putin is applying double standards
The second question is that of the interpretation of the Court’s ruling. The sentence from the opinion that President Putin quotes is in fact far from ‘crystal clear’. It does not endorse Kosovo’s declaration of independence in the way that he seems to imply. The court confined itself to the question “Is the unilateral declaration of independence by the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo in accordance with international law?” Its opinion says only that the declaration as such was not illegal, not that as a result of it Kosovo became independent.
To discuss President Putin’s first point on the similarity of Crimea and Kosovo, it is necessary to look at three areas of difference: the time-frame, the context, and the international process.
1. Time frames
The difference in the time-frames are striking. The developments in Crimea that led to its annexation by the Russian Federation began shortly after President Yanukovych left for Russia on 22nd February 2014. Within a few days Simferopol was seized, Crimean Prime Minister Mohyliov was replaced in an emergency session of the parliament and Russia authorised military intervention in Ukraine. The referendum of 16 March (unmonitored by any outside body) was reported as showing 95% support for joining Russia. A Treaty of Accession to the Russian Federation was signed the following day and was ratified by the Duma two days later. The whole process took less than a month.
For Kosovo it is hard to put a date on the start of the process that led to its declaration of independence. One possibility would be the start of NATO campaign in March 1999; another is March 1989 when Kosovo lost its autonomy within Yugoslavia. According to the date chosen the process took between nine and nineteen years, quite different from the month for Crimea.
The context of Crimea, in Russian explanations, is one of the overthrow not just of a government but also of a state. This, in the Russian view, meant that there was no state continuity and that all obligations under treaties and agreements fell away. This is nonsense both in fact and in law. What happened in Ukraine in February 2014 was that President Yanukovych left the country, creating a power vacuum. Constitutional normality was restored by the election of a new government. But even if there had been a coup d’état or a revolution it would not have wiped away international legal obligations, either of the Ukrainian government or of other governments. That is standard international law.
For Kosovo, the context was the violent break up of Yugoslavia and the role in this of Slobodan Milosevic. The Kosovo war was an attempt to prevent more violence. NATO’s campaign went on longer than expected and was more costly of lives. To this must be added the many casualties of ground operations by Serbian forces and Kosovo guerrillas. But in the minds of NATO governments were the deaths they had already seen in Yugoslavia: some 150,000 people – 7,000 murdered in cold blood at Srebrenica, and many others displaced, or tortured and raped in concentration camps. The war was an action to prevent worse. Perhaps it succeeded. We will never know; but it was out of this that Kosovo’s independence eventually came.
3. International Process
The biggest difference of all between the two cases is the degree of international involvement. The case of Crimea is simple: there was none. Russia has permitted no international presence of any kind either during the process leading to annexation, nor, so far, after it.
Kosovo by contrast was over years the object of discussion in the UN, the OSCE and above all the Contact Group – with Russia fully involved in all of these. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Serbia before the war and then and managed Kosovo under resolution 1244 after it. The OSCE was also on the ground both before an after the war; both maintain a presence to this day. Kosovo’s independence may not have been fully agreed but it came at the end of an intensive and interminable process of international negotiation. This alone makes it quite different from Crimea.
To complete this short survey we should note that Kosovo and Crimea are similar in one respect: in both cases military force was used without the support of a Security Council Resolution. In everything else they are different. Above all Kosovo is an independent country (recognised by 111 countries) whereas Crimea has been annexed by Russia. In the post-war period many territories have separated themselves from the states they once belonged to, but annexation by another state is exceptional.
What is most puzzling is that Russia insists so much on Kosovo as a precedent. There are few similarities between the two cases. And since Russia does not accept that Kosovo is in fact independent, if it were a precedent it would be a bad one from the Russian point of view. Russia’s insistence is against the facts, against logic and against its own interests. Can anyone explain it?
The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.