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Consider the following scenario:

  • there is a region in a country inhabited primarily by a different ethnic group than the majority of the rest of the country, and has been living there and composing the local majority in that region even before the modern county itself came into existence.
  • that region wants to separate from the host country, and holds a referendum which votes nearly unanimously (over 90%) to separate from the country.
  • the host country regards the referendum as illegal, because according to its laws, for a region to leave, the entire country has to participate in the referendum, not just the region which wants to leave.
  • the country lost control over the region which is now de facto under control of the separatists, this has been ongoing for years, with frequent clashes among their "border", with increasing ethnic tensions and violence.

Now, the Western countries in general and NATO in particular, could either recognize the separatist region, or refuse to do so and support the government. In case of Kosovo they did the former, in case of Donbass they did the latter.

What is the cause for these cases to be handled so differently? Yes, in the latter case one might argue that they are in a rivalry with Russia and refusing to recognize those regions opposes Russian interests, but are there other reasons?

(please note that I'm not asking whether the decisions in case of Kosovo and in the case of Donbass are right or wrong, ethical or unethical. I'm only asking for the reasons these decisions were made the way they were made, regardless whether we agree or disagree with them. The question is aimed to further a better understanding of this decision making process)

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    I'm pretty sure the answer is "when it is politically advantageous", but one would be hard-pressed to find a politician actually willing to say that on the record.
    – Allure
    Feb 27 at 13:00
  • Politicians are not researchers of politics, they are actors. Of course we've got to ask actual scientists, aren't we?
    – alamar
    Feb 27 at 13:03
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    Related: Legal basis for self-determination vs. territorial integrity Note that Kosovo was just one among several parts that ceded from former Yugoslavia with the support of NATO (see Yugoslav wars Feb 27 at 13:55

4 Answers 4

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  • A distinct group,
  • in a compact territory that would make a viable state,
  • unable to address their grievances through a democratic process, or acting with the consent of their country.

See, for instance, the split of Czechia and Slovakia. Czechs and Slovaks were distinct, a reasonable border could be drawn between them, and they agreed to split. Accepting that was obvious.

Next, take Kosovo. A previously autonomous province of Serbia within Yugoslavia. After the fall of Communism, many constituent parts wanted out, like Croatia and Slovenia, and the perception was that the Serb nationalists were hijacking the Yugoslav state. After bloody wars, those constituent parts got away, and many people in the autonomous provice felt persecuted by the Serbian authorities. So the West supported their independence movement, but much more reluctantly than for Croatia or Slovenia.

Finally, take Donetsk. It is not clear that there is a "Donetskian People" distinct from either Ukrainians or Russians, it is unclear where their desired borders start and end, and they are perceived as acting under Russian control. The short-lived Autonomous Republic of Crimea is on Western minds.

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    What about Abkhazia?
    – alamar
    Feb 27 at 12:48
  • @alamar, I've given three examples to span the range of reactions, from easy acceptance over reluctant acceptance to rejection. I'm not going to list all separatist movements in the world.
    – o.m.
    Feb 27 at 12:49
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    Your answer is bad because it presents some picture but it does not match whatever happening in the real observable world. If Kosovo should be independent by matching bullet points, so should Abkhazia, but countries are almost perfectly polarized on recognizing one or the other.
    – alamar
    Feb 27 at 12:51
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    If it is not clear that there is a "Donetskian People", why should it be clear that there is a "Kosovo People"?
    – convert
    Feb 27 at 13:47
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    @convert How can you compare that? In one case Albanian speaking people and Serbian speaking people, clearly distinct to everyone. In the other case Russian speaking Ukrainians or Russians, very hard to distinguish without a fair and orderly plebiscit (not performed at gunpoint). No matter whether you support independent Kosovo or you wish it were in Serbia or in Albania, the difference must be obvious to anyone. Feb 27 at 17:18
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I've heard that, while definitely not recognizing them, France smuggles a lot of help to Basque separatists in Spain (France also has some Basque territories in it, but no separatism for some reason).

So if we are cynical, support of separatists is almost always a proxy war. Countries do whatever will strengthen their position as they see it.

Russia recognizes Abkhasia but does not recognize Kosovo. Spain does not recognize Kosovo and will deport people on Kosovar passports despite being in Schengen - because it knows that it is vulnerable too.

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    If by 'France' you mean the French government, that requires a citation.
    – o.m.
    Feb 27 at 12:48
  • By France I would mean French special services that would certainly try to make sure there's no citation available.
    – alamar
    Feb 27 at 12:49
  • This answer would really be benefited by citations. Using solely logical reasoning is one thing, and can be acceptable under certain circumstances, but when the answer directly uses statements of facts, these statements need to be cited.
    – vsz
    Feb 27 at 13:18
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    Once upon a time the French government was perceived to be rather passive against Basque independentist terrorist group ETA. But for a long time, after the death of Franco and democratization of Spain, the entry of Spain into the EU and (according to some gossip) the Spanish government buying French High Speed Trains, it has cracking down on ETA hard. And I have heard of no serious claims of actual support to ETA or any other separatist movement, and seems unlikely since France can have its own problems with it (French Basque Country, but also independentists in Corsica and others).
    – SJuan76
    Feb 27 at 17:12
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    Also [Spain] will deport people on Kosovar passports despite being in Schengen is false in that Kosovo is not part of the Schengen area. It is true that Spain will not recognize a Kosovar passport, though.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 27 at 17:19
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I can say only about Kosovo, since I don't have enough knowledge about Donbass.

The thing is, Milosevic, who was the president of Serbia at the moment, already had wars in his resume, which nobody liked. Not the population of his country, not the West.

Then, we come the the period of 1998/9, which was full of really bad doings, both from the Albanians, and from Serbians. NATO, or to be precise KFOR, was established as a peace-support operation and derives its mandate from the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and international agreements. This was a perfect moment to show up, and set their bases, as well as political and military influence in Balkans, which they really needed, since at that moment, there was not much countries that were in NATO, in the Eastern Europe. Albanian people in Kosovo cheered this move, because they really needed help in the war against Serbs.

Another thing is that, Kosovo is extremely important in terms of trafficking drugs and weapons, as well as in money laundering. So basically, West would give Kosovo "freedom", and Albanians would give money and influence back.

One could say that this was mutual benefit relationship.

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It's worth noting that Putin has made it very clear he's recognizing the claim of the LPR and DPR to the entire Ukrainian oblasts LPR/DPR claim belong to them, even though they (LPR/DPR) control less than half of the territory they claim!

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Putin said Moscow had recognised the independence of Ukraine’s separatist regions within their administrative borders, including territory controlled by Kyiv.

“Well, we recognised them. And this means that we recognised all their fundamental documents, including the constitution,” Putin told reporters. “And the constitution spells out the borders within the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at the time when they were part of Ukraine.”

And in more/clear detail

Along with many other concerns, Russian President Vladimir Putin's quickly implemented decision to recognize the separatist entities Moscow supports in eastern Ukraine as independent states on February 21 immediately raised this question: What, exactly, has Moscow recognized?

When the Russia-backed separatists seized swaths of land in the region known as the Donbas in 2014, they drafted unrecognized "constitutions" that claimed dominion over the entire territory of Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, or oblasts, a total of more than 53,200 square kilometers.

Following months of intense fighting and a February 2015 cease-fire deal that failed to end the war between Kyiv and the Russia-backed forces, the two sides were separated by a line of contact that left the Ukrainian military in control of about two-thirds of that territory, including the important Azov Sea port of Mariupol. The separatists hold the other third, including the two provincial capitals, Donetsk and Luhansk. [...]

enter image description here

Late on February 22, however, Putin clarified that his recognition of the separatists did, in fact, include their territorial claims, potentially throwing open the door to further military conflict with Ukraine.

Which only took a few more day to erupt, although there's every indication that Putin had already made its mind to invade as e.g. the meta-data of his later-broadcast "special military operations" speech actually coincides with the date of the recognition speech.

So it's a bit like the US recognizing Taiwan's claim over mainland China and launching an invasion of mainland China to back that up with US boots, or something like that (scale issues aside).

The EU & NATO countries that did recognize Kosovo (which is most but not all of them) had the sanity to not recognize Greater Albania or similar pan-nationalist aspirations.

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  • The Taiwan comparison doesn't seem like a good example. There is no region in mainland China where the majority wants to belong to Taiwan. Yet in the case of Ukraine, the separatist regions nearly unanimously voted to not want to be part of Ukraine. The claim of "only voted with guns pointed at them" cannot explain why in the 2019 election the pro-Russian party won every single district even in parts of the Donbas still under control of Ukraine.
    – vsz
    Mar 12 at 13:15
  • @vsz: I wouldn't be so sure. If Hong Kong were given that choice for instance...
    – Fizz
    Mar 12 at 14:29

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