In the spring of 1999, the ethnic Albanian population of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, came under attack from Serbian Army and militia units, and they began an epic walk, an exodus of biblical proportions – toward the border of Macedonia.
At one point, some 100,000 Albanians were “shepherded” through a small valley by Serbian forces that occasionally shot into the crowds, until the river of humanity emerged onto a mud-caked Macedonian plain called Blace, where the United Nations set up a refugee camp. Many did not make it. Mass graves were documented by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The events, coming after years of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, were nightmarish.
Yet they finally led to Kosovo’s declared independence in 2008, nine years later.
For Vladimir Putin, Kosovo has emerged as his paramount example of Crimea’s right to declare independence from Ukraine – even if Russia itself is the only G8 member that will accept Mr. Putin’s so-called "Kosovo precedent."
Crimea’s referendum on Sunday will essentially untether the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, no matter which way the vote goes. Crimea will choose to either outright join Russia – or become an essentially independent state, heavily influenced if not run by Moscow, but situated inside the borders of Ukraine.
Ironically, until a few weeks ago, both Putin and Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, had always loudly called the Kosovo precedent "illegal."
Putin’s engineering of such a fast and loose vote with its unknown impact on matters of gravity among nations – sovereignty and borders, for example – is bringing an international uproar. This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel used harsh diplomatic language, saying Putin’s use of a Kosovo parallel is “shameless.”
"In Kosovo we had years in which the international community had no power to intervene while Slobodan Milosevic carried out his ethnic cleansing,” Ms. Merkel told the German Parliament on Thursday. “NATO then decided to act alone because Russia continuously blocked any UN mandate on Serbia. That situation is in no way similar to what is happening today in Ukraine."
European Union foreign affairs spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said this week, “There is absolutely no comparison” between Kosovo and Crimea.
(Certainly gritty land-locked Kosovo, and the famed balmy coastal resort zone of Crimea have little in common in physical characteristics.)
Kosovo’s independence route is often described as “sui generis,” or not easily duplicated. Legal scholars offer dozens of angles on why Putin’s Crimea vote does not have a Kosovo parallel.
Here are five:
1) Kosovo had a wealth of documented crimes against humanity; Crimea does not.
The Belgrade regime of Mr. Milosevic, after already targeting and conducting torture over a period of years in Kosovo against the Albanian population, which did not enjoy equal status with Serbs, began a more open military crackdown (several Serbian military figures were sentenced at the war crimes tribunal at The Hague).
As the Kosovo head of independence negotiations, Skender Hyseni told the Monitor in 2008, “Mr. Milosevic carefully planned ethnic cleansing of the Albanian people and used state institutions, police, and paramilitary structure to implement this policy. One million people were driven out.... It was a gambit by Serbia of a nonconsensual breakup or collapse, to rid Kosovo of Albanians. To now say [in 2008] that we can’t remember this is impractical as a political reality."
In Crimea, there is no evidence of any similar repression; efforts by the West to discover any have been rebuffed by unmarked militia.
2) Yugoslavia dissolved; Ukraine has not.
Kosovo was not a republic, like Serbia or Slovenia, inside the former Yugoslavia. But it did have special autonomous status. It was part of the rotating presidency and had a place in all aspects of the federal administration. So when Yugoslavia collapsed, Kosovo could not achieve its previous status within Serbia. As Albert Rohan, the former Austrian foreign secretary, put it, “It’s not that other republics like Slovenia separated, it is that Yugoslavia dissolved.”
Ukraine is not breaking into separate states. Crimea is the only republic holding a referendum.
3) Kosovo political figures and the international community agreed to rights and protections for Serbs; the status of minorities in Crimea is unclear given the overnight vote.
The so-called UN-mandated Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo guaranteed "enhanced minority rights" – protections for ethnic minorities, including the 5 percent Serbs in the 95 percent Albanian Kosovo, that are still a model of human and civil rights. These were forged over a period of years, informed by the European Union, and agreed to prior to independence.
No such parallel plans are in evidence in Crimea thus far.
4) Kosovo is part of a practice and pattern of crimes against humanity in the Balkans; there is no such dynamic in Crimea.
The Milosevic regime conducted ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia against non-Serbs dating to 1992. Belgrade-aided forces conducted a siege of Sarajevo and a genocide against Muslims in Srebrenica for nearly four years. When a similar pattern emerged in next-door Kosovo, NATO intervened.
There is no similar dynamic of widespread crimes against humanity in Ukraine or any ethnically exclusive "Greater Ukraine" ideology in play.
5) Due diligence: The Kosovo case took nine years; the Crimea case is new.
The unique case of Kosovo emerged out of a process that started in 1992 with the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the brutal and illegal ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs in the Balkans conducted by Serbian state actors, the second-class status of the majority Albanians in Kosovo, and their refusal to ever accept Belgrade as a capital. All this brought a confluence of historical, moral, and practical claims that were part of an international discussion lasting nearly a decade and involving many regional (EU) and international (UN) exertions and safeguards and a host of nations ready to recognize.
The Crimea case is barely a month old; it is not clear who would recognize Crimea.