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Crimea is not Kosovo

Bahri Cani / re
March 12, 2014

In Putin's view, one can't refuse in Crimea what was once allowed in Kosovo. But Eastern Europe expert, Franz-Lothar Altmann, disagrees. The two cases, he says, cannot be compared.

Franz-Lothar Altmann (Foto: P. Kouparanis/DW)
Image: DW

DW: Mr. Altmann, in a speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently compared a possible military intervention in Ukraine's Crimea with the international intervention in Kosovo. Is the situation in Crimea comparable to Kosovo?

Franz-Lothar Altmann: I think that's comparing apples and oranges. In Kosovo, the Albanian population was actually threatened by Serbia's military action. There were extensive expulsions, and the danger of genocide existed. Only afterwards did the intervention from outside take place. That intervention didn't happen to make Kosovo a part of Germany or the US. Where in the Crimean case, the intervention by Russian troops clearly aims to return Crimea to Russia. That's a huge difference. Another point is that the Russian population in Crimea isn't threatened - there is no fear of pogroms. Those dangers, which in the case of Kosovo really did exist, don't exist in Crimea.

Can the referendum on the independence on Crimea influence the situation in Kosovo, south Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or other countries? Or is Crimea a one-off, different than all others?

Each case is a "sui generis" case ["of its own kind" - the ed.]. Just think about Russia for a moment: In the Chechnya case, Russia intervened to prevent Chechnya's separation. In the Crimea case, Russia's intervening to enable the separation of Crimea and return it to Russia. Even these two cases are different. And again, I think to compare these two cases with Kosovo or even Catalonia and Scotland is just not possible. Internationally, the issue of self-determination is very much disputed.

No agreement exists as to at which point a referendum is justified, or when a separation is justified. First, it still is assumed that, if possible, conditions should remain stable. And only when instability really looms - due to genocide or expulsions - is it assumed that separation is actually justified.

There you again have difficulties the cases of Catalonia and Scotland, where it's said that secession is only allowed when the motherland agrees. Everything is very uncertain, and you can't compare one case with another. But you can define the level of urgency.

But will the home country - it doesn't matter if we're talking about Ukraine or North Kosovo - ever agree to secession?

I assume that, in any case, the country will first say no, and it will fight against secession. I think that's obvious. But then again, the cases of Kosovo, Chechnya or Catalonia can't be compared. Every case has to be individually examined - what the reasons for the desire to secede are, and to what extent the influence from outside is significant. In the Crimea case, it's obvious that the Crimea's Parliament pushes independence ahead of referendumsecession and the referendum are only possible because of Russia's intervention, and because Russia has sent troops to Crimea and therefore created the possibility for a referendum.

Do you see a solution for Ukraine and Crimea in which Russia as well as the West could save face?

Yes. If the organization of the Ukrainian state were to be transformed into a real federation, that could be a solution. That would mean that the autonomy of Crimea as part of the Ukrainian federation would receive an additional attribute. And maybe the east and the west of Ukraine would be part of the federation. That's a solution I can possibly see.

Franz-Lothar Altmann is professor for International and Intercultural Relations at the University of Bucharest. He is a member of the executive board of the Southeast Europe association and is also a member of the BTI-Boards (Bertelsmann Transformation Index).