Against the backdrop of last Sunday’s independence referendum in Catalonia, tonight’s round of FIFA World Cup qualification fixtures produces one particularly intriguing match. Ordinarily Kosovo facing off against Ukraine would not be the first match to grab headlines. Coming just days after the events in Catalonia, however, it provides context to last weekend’s events in the Spanish region.

Kosovo play tonight as an independent nation, having unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The recognition of their right to self-determination, expressed by some 90% of those who voted last Sunday’s Catalan referendum, has provided them with this opportunity to take part tonight.

Meanwhile Ukraine play as a nation which has lost control of Crimea, one of its most crucial strategic regions, following the peninsula’s declaration of independence and subsequent annexation by the Russian Federation in 2014.

These very different experiences to the application – and recognition – of the principle of self-determination gives an insight into the politics of independence and the right of a population to self-determination.

Markedly different circumstances surrounding independence

Kosovo’s parliamentary assembly unilaterally declared its independence on 17 February 2008, almost nine years after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. The resolution had brought an end to the Kosovo war, which had seen widespread human rights abuses by Serbia’s Milošević regime against the majority ethnic-Albanian population.

martti ahtisaari speaks
Martti Ahtisaari, a Finnish politician and UN diplomat, drafted a report that formed the basis of Kosovo’s drive towards independence. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

In the years that followed, the United Nations formed an administration in Kosovo that oversaw the rebuilding of the region’s political institutions. In the face of growing calls for independence, UN mediator Martii Ahtisaari produced a report laying down requirements for independence such as the protection of minority rights and their participation in democratic processes. It was in this context that the Kosovo National Assembly declared the country’s independence.

In terms of the makeup of the Crimean population, distinct parallels can be drawn with Kosovo. The 2001 Census of Crimea found that 58.5% of Crimea was made up of ethnic Russians, while 24.4% were Ukrainian and 12.1% were Crimean Tatars. Of those ethnic Ukrainians, a significant portion were native Russian speakers and the region itself had been part of Russia up until 1954 when it was ceded to Ukraine.

Proponents of the Crimean decision point to the fact that its declaration of independence was preceded by a referendum which saw (if its organisers are to be believed) 96% of those who voted expressing a desire to join Russia. No such referendum took place in the run-up to Kosovo’s declaration – it was very much a unilateral declaration by the National Assembly.

In contrast to Kosovo, there was also no systematic abuse of the human rights of the Crimean people by the Ukrainian government. In addition, the Crimean referendum took place with significant numbers of Russian troops stationed in the Ukrainian peninsula. The referendum was said to have violated the Constitution of Ukraine and, much like the vote in Catalonia last Sunday, was declared illegal by the national government.

kosovo pristina captial centre
A view of the centre of the Kosovan capital, Priština. Photo credit: Aidan Shipman/Jericho

Differing circumstances bring vastly different levels of recognition

The simple fact that Kosovo is appearing tonight on the world footballing stage is demonstrative of its widespread international acceptance as an independent state.

In order to apply to join FIFA, Kosovo first needed to become a member of UEFA. It did so in May 2016, winning a close vote of the members by 28-24 (54%). Just 10 days later, Kosovo faced another vote, this time at FIFA, which it overcame by a much higher margin after gaining 86% of the votes. As far as the litmus test of international football goes, Kosovo is growing in recognition.

The Kosovo Foreign Ministry also states that Kosovo is recognised by 113 countries. There are no such figures released by the governments of Crimea or Russia but the lack of international backing is evident from the fact that all but 26 UN states voted for a General Assembly Resolution in December 2016 that defined Russia as an occupying power in Crimea.

An element of hypocrisy in recognising the right to self-determination?

In his Kremlin address that precipitated the acceptance of Crimea into Russia, Putin criticised the West for recognising the independence of Kosovo but not the actions of Crimea. He railed against what he saw as the hypocrisy of the West:

“This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.”

This week, this criticism has been repeated by Ivica Dačić, the Serbian foreign minister who said that he was “bothered by the double standards of the international community” for refusing to accept the Catalan referendum while in the main part accepting Kosovo’s independence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks bemused in front of a Russia flag
Russian President Vladimir Putin has railed against the “blunt cynicism” of the West in its treatment of the Kosovan and Crimean cases. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

It is difficult not to see some force in Dačić’s argument, especially when delving deeper into the composition of the states that refuse to recognise Kosovo as an independent country. Take the views of the 28 EU member states: 23 of them currently recognise Kosovo as an independent state; four of them – Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania – all have fears that secessionist movements could gather pace in their own countries. And the fifth member of this group? Spain.

This is not particularly surprising. States generally tend to act in their own self-interest and recognition of the right to self-determination is just another example of this. No matter how much the Spanish government may have sympathised with the Kosovar people, its position today would be considerably weaker if it had chosen to recognise Kosovo as independent.

Putin decries Western hypocrisy in relation to Crimea and, though the differences in the processes leading up to the two events may have been stark, he may have a point. The irony is that he cites the Kosovo precedent in legitimising his actions in Crimea, while refusing to recognise Kosovan independence.

A long journey to full recognition

Despite Kosovo’s growing recognition on the international stage, it is still heavily hamstrung by its disputed status. The restriction on the movement of the Kosovar people is just one example of this. It is the reason why the first fixture between Ukraine and Kosovo in October was not played in Ukraine but next door in Poland – Ukraine does not recognise its opponent’s independence and the players would have been denied entry to the country.

On a larger scale, if Kosovo were ever to join the European Union, the five countries that do not recognise its statehood would need to change their position. Don’t bet on that happening any time soon in Madrid.

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