Richard North, 28/03/2014 1824
The unilateral declaration of independence by the breakaway province of Kosovo in 2008 is being recruited by both sides in the Ukraine dispute, as evidence of the legality or otherwise of the secession of Crimea.
Urging European nations to back NATO on the standoff with Russia, Obama went on lambaste Russian leaders who, in defending their actions, “have further claimed Kosovo as a precedent, an example, they say, of the West interfering in the affairs of a smaller country, just as they’re doing now”.
“But”, said Obama, “NATO only intervened after the people of Kosovo were systematically brutalized and killed for years. And Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organised not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbours”.
As his punchline, Obama then declares that, “None of that even came close to happening in Crimea”, leading Russia Today gleefully to pronounce the American president in error. Attentive listeners, it says, quickly pointed Obama’s gaps in history – “there was no referendum in Kosovo”.
According to another source, Milos Subotic, the International Relations Officer of the University of Pristina, Kosovo, says Kosovo never organised any kind of referendum. The Assembly of Provisional Institutions of self-government of Kosovo made a unilateral declaration of independence on 17 February 2008.
In fact, though, the pundits are wrong. There was a referendum, but it was in 1991. It was organised by the Albanians in Kosovo, during which 87 percent of the voters took part and 99 percent voted in favour of independence. The Serbs boycotted the poll. Then, following the declaration of independence of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, the Democratic League of Kosovo asserted claims of full sovereignty and independence.
But where Obama has gone very badly wrong is that the referendum was not organised “in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbours”. In fact, the UN was not involved then, and Serbia refused to recognise the referendum. No other member of the United Nations, apart from Albania, recognised the poll.
It was not until after the three-month NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia in June 1999 that Kosovo was finally placed under administration of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and a NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, was authorised to enter the province, then leading to recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
Thus, the history is much closer to the situation in Crimea, where the referendum was carried out in defiance of the governing state, which then refused to recognise it. If President Obama is to recognise the legitimacy of Kosovo’s independence, then on the same grounds he might have difficulty not recognising the legitimacy of Crimean independence and its wish then to join the Russian federation.
But how bizarre it is that Obama should have made such a fundamental error on such a sensitive issue, even if both sides have actually got it wrong. What on earth are things coming to when such mistakes are made by a president of the United States?