In the next few days, we will hear a lot of noise from Russians about their planned referendum in Crimea and shouts of "double standards," "Kosovo" and even "Scotland." Some will be tempted to shout back "Budapest memorandum" or even "genocide of Albanians." A better response would be a calmly uttered: "Autonomy-—of course. Independence—theoretically. Proper legal mechanisms—absolutely."
To begin with the obvious: The proposed referendum in Crimea on March 16 is a cheap device, an attempt by the peninsula's hastily installed Russian prime minister (whose pro-Moscow party won only 4% of the vote in the last election) to give legitimacy to a Russian putsch. Will there even be time to print ballot papers and organize polling stations—even if Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars do not boycott the vote?
The Russian transgression in Crimea is even more clear-cut than in the disputed territories in the Caucasus. There, Abkhazian and South Ossetians had genuine home-grown grievances against Georgia before Moscow intervened in 2008. In Crimea, by contrast, Crimean Russian officials were already running the place before Moscow's de-facto anschluss of last week. Since then, Ukrainians have not fired a single shot in anger.
But Russian sophistry is not an excuse to sweep aside the issue of Crimea's status. Russia is making an intellectual assault on European sovereignty, not just a physical one. That makes it all the more important to call Moscow's bluff and take seriously the issue of Crimea's future.
Crimean Russians have a narrative. It is one of Russian glory in Sevastopol, fascist occupation in World War II, betrayal by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 and creeping "Ukrainization" since 1991. It is clearly a one-sided story, but as with that of other national minorities across Europe, it should be heard out and not just dismissed because it does not suit a Western agenda.
The proper European response is to say that any dispute over a proposed change in the status of a territory needs to honor the historical aspirations of all its citizens—Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars—as is happening, for instance, between the English and Scots, or as previously occurred between Canada and Quebec.
In the case of Scotland, the two interested parties—Edinburgh and Westminster—are negotiating together the nature of changes to Scotland's status. In the process, the Scottish Nationalist Party is discovering what the Quebecois learned the hard way: Unpicking an existing state and breaking a piece off is not an easy business. The myriad technical issues—from the status of armed forces, to currency, customs and banking issues—are just the beginning. Scots are discovering that independence may also mean having to renegotiate membership in international organizations such as the EU.
Moreover, the onus is on the separatists to prove to non-separatists why they shouldn't choose to break off their own piece of the cake. So indigenous "first nations" argued that if Quebec broke from Canada, they should have a right to break from Quebec. Similarly, if the Crimean secession vote succeeds, Crimean Tatars may announce plans to form a "Tatar autonomous region" to rejoin Ukraine.
What about Kosovar Serbs? The case of Kosovo did indeed set a bad precedent. The country's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, which the International Court of Justice deemed did not violate international law, violated the principle that a breakaway territory is not to be recognized as independent without the consent of its former parent. Later in 2008, Russia used that precedent as cover to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia in far more dubious circumstances.
Of course the Kosovar Albanians had good arguments too. They noted that Serbia had pushed them toward independence by military intervention in 1999, after which U.N. Resolution 1244 removed Belgrade's authority over Kosovo and established a U.N. administration in Pristina instead. Eight years of painful negotiations followed in which all conceivable questions were covered, from Kosovar churches to postal services. Finally, the states that ultimately recognized Kosovo as independent in 2008 only did so after imposing international mechanisms that forced its government to respect Kosovar Serbs' civic and property rights.
This process was in many respects a success. But had Western countries gone the extra mile in exploring creative sovereignty options for Kosovo in partnership with Serbia, they might have demonstrated that recognition was about achieving international standards, not just rewarding friends.
So the international response to pro-independence Crimean Russians should be this:
The world will listen to your claims, alongside those of other Crimean communities, It will support protracted negotiations about status that might even lead to a Scottish-style independence referendum many years hence. But this process carries responsibilities too, for instance that any changes can only be effected by all citizens acting without intimidation.
That means no meaningful discussions on Crimea's status can start until Russian forces leave the peninsula. Only then can Crimean Russians start preparing thousand-page dossiers for discussion with Kiev, once a new Ukrainian government is elected in May.
Separatism in Europe should not be impossible, it should just be very hard. A high degree of autonomy is a much better alternative for all in Crimea. But Ukrainians need to come up with good proposals too, so as not to be rolled over by Russia's dubious arguments, as well as by its tanks.