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Interview: Kosovo-Crimea Parallel Is 'Completely False,' Says Ex-Diplomat

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol on March 14.
Former U.S. diplomat Louis Sell, author of the book "Slobodan Milosevic and The Destruction of Yugoslavia,” spent much of his career in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. He had a front seat at many of the diplomatic negotiations that shaped the modern Balkans. From 1995 to 1996 he served as political deputy to Carl Bildt, the first High Representative for Bosnian Peace Implementation. And in 2000, he was Kosovo director of the International Crisis Group.

Sell spoke with RFE/RL's Kosovo Unit Director Arbana Vidishiqi about Kosovo's recent history and whether the Kremlin's parallels with the situation in Crimea hold true.

RFE/RL: Russia has been pointing to Kosovo's case as justification for its actions in Crimea. Is this a valid or a false argument, in your opinion?

Louis Sell: I think it's a completely false and even phony argument. The analogy with Kosovo really just doesn't hold water in almost every way, both legally and factually.

The most important thing is the degree of persecution the people of these two respective areas were subjected to. The international intervention in Kosovo came in 1999, far too late in my view, but after Kosovo had been subjected to more than 10 years of violence by [former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, who suppressed the province's autonomy illegally and violently in 1989. And then, in 1999, began a campaign of in-effect ethnic cleansing and genocide, to drive the majority Albanian population out of Kosovo. Then, and only then, did NATO intervene in a truly humanitarian intervention which succeeded in forcing Serb forces out. After that, NATO didn't take over and occupy and annex Kosovo. It established a UN administration.

None of that happened in Crimea. In Crimea, the population there has lived more or less amicably since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There has been no massive oppression or even oppression on a small scale.

There have been a couple of periods when various groups agitated for different relations with Ukraine or with Russia and those were worked out by agreement between Ukraine and Russia. The Russian population [in Crimea] was not in any way threatened by any events going on in Crimea. The assertions that they were are pure falsehood.

RFE/RL: Kosovo declared independence 9 years after the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, so; it went through a long diplomatic process. How does that compare to Moscow's approach?

Sell: The Ahtisaari process, which you alluded to, is yet another key distinction between Crimea and Kosovo. Once the situation had been stabilized in Kosovo and once Kosovo had created its own institutions of provisional self-government, an internationally supervised process of negotiation was begun, which involved all the parties to the dispute. None of that is happening in Crimea. It's a pure grab by Russia.

If Russia were interested, if it truly felt the Russian people in Crimea were under threat, then it could engage in this kind of a mediation process, which is by the way called for in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia.

RFE/RL: Despite increasing international pressure, Russian President Vladimir Putin is giving no sign of backing down. There are also fears that other countries with ethnic Russian populations could potentially become vulnerable to a Kremlin attack. Are these fears justified?

Sell: As far as Putin [is concerned], it is difficult to predict what he will do in the future, but I think there is a possibility there. Russians are in effective control of Crimea and they seem to be determined to hold this pseudo-referendum. After that, it is possible that a process of negotiation could be under way; the Ukrainian government has said it is willing to do that; the United States and EU are also urging that.
Louis Sell (file photo)
Louis Sell (file photo)

It is possible that some kind of negotiation could be established to look at Crimea's status within Ukraine. Any of Russia's neighbors, looking at what Putin and his regime did in Georgia in 2008 and what they've just done in Crimea, any of Russia's neighbors have to think about the implications of that for them.

RFE/RL: What should the response of the international community be on this issue, if the Crimean referendum goes ahead?

Sell: Two things are important, there are two principles: one is, this is an example of international aggression plain and simple and the international community can't -- both as a matter of principle and as a matter of practices for the future -- stand by and just watch that happen, and do nothing.

On the other hand, it's also important not to let this thing get out of hand. No one wants this to lead to conflict and the path for that is negotiation among all the parties. There are plenty of options available, if there is good will on all sides.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, is this the beginning of a new Cold War era?

Sell: I hope not. I don't think it needs to be. Whether it is or not, really depends a lot on how Putin responds.