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From Kosovo to Crimea: Obama’s Strange Position on Referendums

After the death of President Tito in 1980 the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia slid towards chaos. In the 1990s the plunge accelerated into civil war and one of the regions most affected was Kosovo from which Serbia withdrew after a NATO bomb and rocket offensive from 24 March to 11 June 1999. That blitz involved over 1,000 mainly American aircraft conducting some 38,000 airstrikes on Yugoslavia that killed approximately 500 civilians and destroyed much of the economic and social infrastructure of the region.

The destruction and outcome were not quite as tragic and catastrophic as those from NATO’s fatuously-named Operation Unified Protector against Libya in 2011 when its seven month aerial jamboree of 9,658 air strikes caused collapse of governance and gave rise to the present infestation of Islamic savages and a massive refugee problem, but it was still calamitous, as blitzes go.

NATO said its air bombardment of Serbia was essential to halt repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and justified the deaths of hundreds of women and children as being necessary to defeat a “great evil.” The air attacks were not authorized by the United Nations Security Council and there is no article in the North Atlantic Treaty that justifies such a war.  It resulted, however, in Kosovo declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

As reported by the Washington Post, NATO supported the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army whose members are now, belatedly, being convicted of war crimes.

On March 26, 2014 President Barack Obama said in a speech in Brussels that regarding the 1999 war on Yugoslavia, “NATO only intervened after the people of Kosovo were systematically brutalized and killed for years. And Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organized not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbours.”

The President of the United States, whose State Department has some 15,000 experts to keep him informed about international affairs, told the world that Kosovo had held an independence referendum “in careful cooperation” with the United Nations Organization. He added that “None of that even came close to happening in Crimea,” which was an intriguing pronouncement.

Because as reported on Fox News, “During his speech in Brussels, President Obama showed a lack of knowledge of the political situation in Kosovo. Kosovo never organized any kind of referendum, but the Assembly of Provisional Institutions of self-government of Kosovo made a unilateral declaration of independence on February 17th 2008.”

Fox News went on to report Doctor James Ker-Lindsay, a Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe at the London School of Economics, as saying that “Surely there must have been someone at hand who would have known that there was no UN organised referendum in Kosovo. It really was not that long ago . . .   It will be interesting to see if a retraction or correction is issued by the White House.”

And correction came there none.

Although there was no referendum in Kosovo before its declaration of independence from Serbia it is apparent that the majority of Kosovans desired independence and would have voted for separation from Serbia if they had been given the opportunity to do so.  And according to Mr Obama there was and remains no reason for their wishes to be denied.

After all, in 2010 the UN International Court’s Advisory Opinion concerning Kosovo indicated that “international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence,” a clear-cut endorsement of Kosovo’s actions — and of other such decisions around the world.

No doubt Mr Obama approved of the opportunity given to the people of Scotland to vote in an Independence Referendum a few months after his enthusiastic endorsement of a non-existent plebiscite in Kosovo.  In the Scottish Referendum I wasn’t allowed to vote, in spite of being Scottish-born and educated, because I live outside Scotland (in France, in which place of residence I have a vote in the UK’s general elections — in a Scottish constituency).

In other blatant attempts to influence voting,  the Scottish National Party decided (in the already independent Scottish Parliament which met first in May 1999, coincidentally at the height of the US-NATO blitz on Serbia) to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 and to forbid Scottish soldiers serving outside Scotland — in Afghanistan, for example — to vote unless they had a residence address in Scotland.

All the attempted manipulation didn’t work, and the majority of Scots voted against independence (much to the vexation of many English people), but justice was seen to be done.

Just as justice was done in the Crimea referendum.

wrote last year that “some 90% of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian-speaking, Russian-cultured and Russian-educated, and it would be strange if they did not vote for accession to a country that welcomes their kinship, empathy and loyalty” and that there was not “a single case of bloodshed in the run-up to the plebiscite, the free vote as to whether the population wished to accede to Russia or support the “status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine.”  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was asked by the government of Crimea to send representatives to monitor the referendum but refused to do so.”

It was not surprising that the OSCE rejected the offer to observe the referendum and provide independent assessments of its conduct, because its findings would have been extremely embarrassing for the West and especially for Washington which had no intention of accepting the result of any referendum in which voters would favour Russia.  Obama’s assertion that the popular accession of Crimea to Russia was “annexation” is on the same level as his imaginative claim about a non-existent referendum by the citizens of Kosovo.

There were energetic attempts in the West to paint the post-accession treatment of Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea as harsh, but some newspapers refrained from deliberate lies. Even the ultra-right-wing British Daily Telegraph reported that “Like many of the Ukrainian servicemen in Crimea, the 600-strong marine battalion in Feodosia has strong local links. Many of the men are either local recruits or have served here so long they have put down roots. Only about 140 of the 600-strong battalion stationed here are expected to return to Ukraine. The remainder, with local family and friends, have opted to remain in Crimea — the land they call home.”

To President Obama it is irrelevant that the vast majority of Crimean citizens want to belong to Russia.  His hatred of Russia and especially of President Putin has tipped any intellectual balance he may have possessed and is now extreme to the point of being malevolently insulting.  He is increasingly intent on confrontation and has stated that the decision of the citizens of Crimea to accede to Russia is illegal.  The White House announced that “We reject the ‘referendum’ that took place today in the Crimean region of Ukraine,” and Obama declared “I again call on Russia to end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea.”

But what is Obama going to do about Crimea?  Does he seriously believe that 1.2 million Crimean Russians could accept domination by Ukraine’s Poroshenko?  There would be civil insurrection and mayhem if Ukraine took over the country as suggested by Obama.

Mr Obama’s claim that “Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organized not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbours,” was bizarrely untruthful — but was clear indication that he approves of UN-supervised independence plebiscites in territories whose citizens indicate that they wish to alter their circumstances of governance.

Given the practicalities of his admirable moral stance it is obvious that in order to clarify matters to his satisfaction he should propose another referendum in Crimea.

A version of this piece first appeared on the site of the Strategic Culture Foundation on June 28, 2015.