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Why Is Crimea Different From Scotland Or Kosovo?

Alex Salmond, the leader of Scotland's Scottish National Party
Alex Salmond, the leader of Scotland's Scottish National Party
Russians have accused the West of hypocrisy in its refusal to accept the legitimacy of Crimea's March 16 referendum.

Politicians and Russian media have pointed to both the West's support for Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 and an upcoming referendum in Scotland that could see the country break away from the United Kingdom.

"If some people aren't happy with the Crimean parliament, it's their taste," said Valentina Matvienko, the chairman of Russia's Federation Council. "How come no one has said that Scotland's independence referendum that is taking place in September is a priori illegitimate?

In another report, on Russian state-run television, an anchor remarks sarcastically that in Western opinion "Kosovo has the right to self-determination but Crimea does not."

The comparisons are not surprising -- especially given Russia's outrage when Kosovo did declare independence -- but a careful look shows that both cases have occurred under considerably different circumstances than those taking place in Crimea.

Let's address Scotland first.

As outlined in "The Washington Post," it was a series of democratic events that led to the decision to put leaving the United Kingdom to a vote. In 2011, the Scottish National Party, which was created on the basis of campaigning for independence from the United Kingdom, earned a majority in the country's parliament.

The Scottish parliament then approved legislation authorizing a referendum on secession. This was followed in 2012 by negotiations between ministers from the Scottish and British government, who reached agreement on holding a referendum in 2014.

In other words, legally viable bodies at both the local (Scotland) and national (United Kingdom) level approved of the referendum in tandem.

The referendum choice is simple: Remain a part of the United Kingdom or break off.

Now Kosovo.

When Kosovo's assembly unanimously approved independence in 2008, Russia was outraged. Moscow claimed it had violated a 1999 agreement that would put the territory under UN control until a negotiated settlement could be reached.

To some it may seem like the only difference between the events of six years ago and those taking place today is that the aggrieved parties have switched sides.

While the comparison holds up better than the Scotland one, there were a range of important factors at play in Kosovo that do not exist in Crimea.

Moscow claims that ethnic Russians in Crimea face the threat of persecution from Ukraine's ethnic-Ukrainian majority but there has been no evidence of this so far.

The same could not be said for Kosovo.

A brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians by Yugoslav army forces in 1999 led to a three-month NATO bombing campaign, which Russia adamantly opposed. Unable to get help from Moscow, then-President Slobodan Milosevic -- who had skillfully and ruthlessly played off ethnic divisions in the region throughout the 1990s -- was forced to approve an international peace plan.

Final-status negotiations with ethnic-Albanians, who represent 90 percent of Kosovo's population, had gone nowhere since, with Serbia unwilling to sacrifice further autonomy to the region.

So almost a decade after the brutal ethnic conflict, Kosovo's democratically elected parliament voted to break off officially from Serbia.

Now let's contrast the above two cases with the current situation in Crimea:

* The Crimean parliament was taken over by heavily armed soldiers. The sitting prime minister was forced to resign and replaced by Sergei Aksyonov. The latter's separatist party had received just 4 percent of the vote in Crimea's most recent elections. As many as 14,000 Russian soldiers have occupied Crimea since late February.

Neither the Kosovo declaration nor the upcoming Scotland vote involved military pressure or a government overthrow.

* The Crimea referendum provides for either joining with Russia or becoming a de facto independent state. There is no status quo option.

The Scottish referendum provides a simple yes or no for separation from the United Kingdom.

* Ethnic Russians make up the majority of Crimea's population but ethnic-Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars together make up the remaining nearly 40 percent. While Russians do not appear to be under threat, the Crimean Tatar minority has legitimate cause for concern. Hundreds of thousands were deported from the region by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1944.

Albanians made up 88 percent of the population of Kosovo around the time of the independence vote. (Still, several enclaves are majority Serbs.)

* Rather than seeking independence, Crimea's de facto leaders seek to join Russia.

Kosovo and Scotland separatists have both sought independence, rather than union with another state.

* Less than a month has passed between Kyiv's change of government and Crimea's declaration of independence and referendum on union with Russia.

Scotland's referendum was the result of a rigorous legal process that included input from both the Scottish government and London. Kosovo declared independence almost a decade after gaining autonomy.

-- Glenn Kates