Victory vs. Europe in the Ukrainian crisis

CC/Flickr/Young European Federalists

CC/Flickr/Young European Federalists

PARIS – Today was May 9th, a celebration throughout Europe with varying significations. In the East, it is Victory Day, the date at which the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis to end the Second World War almost seventy years ago. In the West, it is Europe Day, the commemoration of the speech of French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann which established in 1950 the foundations of what would become the European Union. 

In a way, this day illustrates the struggles of the divided European continent, which at times seems nostalgic of the former order set up by the Cold War.

 May 9th was thus the occasion for Russian President Vladimir Putin to make a political statement by visiting Crimea for the first time since its annexation. In Russia, this day is seen as the fight of the East against fascism, which, in the eyes of the Russians and a fraction of the Ukrainian population, is the very thing infecting the new Kiev government. In a way, May 9th can be seen as a commemoration of the former glory of the Soviet Union. 

Meanwhile, the Union is preoccupied by its date with destiny at the end of the month. Will the wave of Euroscepticism engulf the European Parliament, as predicted by several European experts and media? EU citizens are hoping for change, one way or another.

The degree to which the day was celebrated has accordingly varied depending on the member state. In the Netherlands, a Green MEP called for Dutch people to come out with their love of the Union.  Here in Paris, the buses wore the French and European colors colors throughout the day, and in Strasbourg young Europeans gathered in front of the EU buildings to discuss its future.

Despite this internal questioning, the Union still tries to find its international voice.  Yet French President François Hollande is currently meeting Angela Merkel in Germany to discuss the situation in Ukraine, in the continuation of a state-oriented model that has taken away much of the credibility of Catherine Ashton over the last years.

Nevertheless, Ukraine remains a battlefield after months of internal conflict. After the Kiev demonstrators successfully obtained the resignation of the country’s president and the nomination by the Parliament of a new temporary government, armed men took over the Crimean government and military buildings before the region itself declared it would join the Russian Federation.

The separatist movement has now spread to several parts of Eastern Ukraine, leaving a trail of death in its midst. Today, over twenty people died in the attack of the police headquarters in the Eastern city of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region.

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Why Crimea may not be Kosovo

On Sunday, the people of Crimea answered a resounding ‘YES’ (95.5% to 97%, depending on sources)  to the referendum on the annexation of the region by Russia. Looking at the current developments, it seems that Russia will successfully absorb Crimea in the coming week, despite the disapproval of the international community. On Friday, France joined the other 27 EU member states in a Brussels to decide on whether another round of sanctions was warranted.

During this international dispute,  politicians and diplomats have made several historical comparisons. But here is the latest one: in his parliamentary address on Tuesday, Putin argued that these critics were unwarranted, especially because of the role the West had played in the independence of Kosovo. But how good of a comparison is that? Here are a few elements to contribute to the debate.

KOSOVO vs. CRIMEA

Nature of intervention

In Kosovo, the intervention was led by NATO, under the leadership of the United States.

In Crimea, the versions have varied. Putin and his defense minister argue that the soldiers that have taken over the region’s military bases are not Russian (they’re wearing unmarked uniforms), but rather a local self-defense force manned by locals. Others believe these are Russian soldiers and nothing else.

Length of unrest

The controversy surrounding the status of Kosovo within Serbia arguably started in 1989, when Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic imposed restrictions on both the autonomy of the province and the liberties of ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo.

The conflict gradually escalated until the end of 1992, at which time Milosevic received  its first international warnings based on the ethnic cleansing reports that were coming in. NATO first bombed Bosnian Serbs in 1994, but did not truly intervene on Serbian territory until the beginning of 1999. War continued until the end of September that same year, and it took Kosovo 9 more years to declare independence against Serbia’s will.

What about Crimea? On February 21, 2014, Ukrainian President Yanukovych signed a deal with opposition leaders to put a stop to street violence, before fleeing the country the very next day. It is at this point the elected Parliament voted him out of power and set up an interim government with elections set up for May 25th. The Crimean referendum took place a record 23 days later on March 16th.

Human rights violation 

A total of 161 people were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for war crimes in that area. Estimates evaluate that over 700,000 Kosovars were displaced due to this conflict, and that between March & September 1999 over 10,000 people died. There are no certainties as to the number of deaths caused by ethnic cleansing.

In Crimea, the main consequence of the change of government was the suppression of Russian as a national language. There was no reported human rights violation in Crimea prior to the intervention of unidentified soldiers across the region. On the contrary, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on March 14th that these ‘self-defense forces’ harassed, attacked and abducted journalists and activists present in the region.

“Crimean authorities are allowing illegal and unidentified armed units to run the show in the peninsula, and to commit crimes that go uninvestigated and unpunished, as if there is a legal vacuum. Far from it. The local authorities have clear legal obligations to provide protection and security to those in their jurisdiction.” Rachel Denber, HRW deputy Europe and Central Asia director