Manuel Veth –
UEFA’s decision to accept Kosovo as its 55th member state on May 3, 2016 has been the subject of major discussions in Russia. The vote on Tuesday was 28 to 24 in favour, for Kosovo to join UEFA as a full member state.
With its UEFA membership confirmed, Kosovo can now apply for FIFA membership as well, and is cleared to participate in the qualification for the UEFA European Championships starting with the 2020 tournament.
Serbia Has Reacted with Disappointed by UEFA’s Decision
The news, which was heralded with enthusiasm in Kosovo, has been met with grim disapproval in Serbia—the president of the Football Association of Serbia Tomislav Karadžić stated, “I was hoping I would never have to talk about this topic because I believed we would be successful in saving football from politics.”
Karadžić referred to article 5 of UEFA’s statute, which clearly states that only countries recognized by the UN can join, Karadžić further insisted that the proposal to allow Kosovo to join was political, and added: “Football must not cross the line and redraw the borders of any country.” Karadžić further stated that accepting Kosovo as a member state, “is the crudest possible meddling of politics in sport. Therefore, we have to say no.”
It is expected that Serbia will try to challenge UEFA’s decision in every possible way. Furthermore, Serbia believes that UEFA’s decision to grant Kosovo status as a member state could open a “Pandora’s box.”
This last reference may refer to Serbia’s ally, the Russian Federation, which might use the decision to claim membership status for several contested regions in the post-Soviet space, such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and most importantly Crimea. Indeed, they may have a point, as Russia’s media responded immediately to UEFA’s decision with headlines that demanded that UEFA recognize Crimea as a member state.
Crimea’s UEFA Membership – Could Kosovo Open Pandoras Box?
The Russian state agency TASS reported, on Wednesday May 4, “The Crimean Football Union expects UEFA membership after the Kosovo precedent.” CFU President Yury Vetokha told the media on Wednesday, “Several delegates at the UEFA Congress expressed the opinion that if the issue was raised in regard to Kosovo, than something must be done in regard to Crimea as well.”
Vertokha further added that he cannot see how the Crimea and Kosovo situations are different. “It [Kosovo] is also an unrecognized republic. We held talks with our delegation and Frantisek Laurinec [UEFA’s special envoy to Crimea]. They clearly stated that there were agreements.”
Vetokha did not specify what those agreements were, but clearly hinted that he believes UEFA is moving toward granting membership status to Crimea. “[FIFA President] Gianni Infantino met with Vitaly Mutko, and they have discussed the issue of integrating Crimea into world football step by step.”
Vetokha added, “We do understand that this will not happen quickly, but we have fulfilled all the requirements, and the current development provides another fact toward our membership at UEFA.”
Originally, Russia had hoped to integrate Crimean football into the league structure of the Russian Federation. But, after intervention by UEFA, an independent Crimean Premier League was set up. The statements by Vetokha, therefore, now point toward having Crimea accepted as an independent football body, rather than as a member of the Russian Football Union, which could have paved the way for international recognition of Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea.
Vyacheslav Koloskov, who is the honorary president of the Russian Football Union, told championat.com that UEFA’s decision signifies “that Crimea can now apply to participate in Russian competitions.”
Laurinets was quick to point out, however, that Crimea can only become a member state of UEFA, if the majority of UN member states recognize Crimea’s status, as either an independent state or as a member of the Russian Federation. “The history of Kosovo can not be used as an example for the Crimea. Maybe Vetokha misunderstood me. The decision on Kosovo has just been passed, and the decision was very close. But a greater number of UN member states have recognized Kosovo. At the moment, this is not the case for Crimea.”
Laurinets further explained, “The adoption of Crimea into UEFA will depend on the recognition of UN member countries. Kosovo, for example, is recognized by more than 100 countries.”
Russia has Used the Kosovo as Precedent for its own aggressive foreign policy in the past
Currently, 64 countries—among them Russia, China, Brazil, and India—do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Crimea, meanwhile, is only recognized by seven UN member states as a part of Russia—Afghanistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.
Russia, however, has used the example of Kosovo, in the past to, justify actions in what it terms the near abroad—generally speaking, states that belonged to the Soviet Union. In 2008 Russia was involved in a short war with Georgia, and subsequently occupied two Georgian territories—South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. In the post-Soviet republic of Moldova, Russia has supported the independence of Transnistria.
Russia has also used football as a political tool in order to underline its possession of Crimea, by trying to integrate several of the region’s football clubs into the Russian league structure. This attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, as both UEFA and FIFA threatened sanctions. It will be interesting to see how Russia reacts to UEFA’s decision in the long run—early statements indicate that the Russian government, in the form of the Russian Football Union, will try to use the case of Kosovo to justify, in any way possible, their annexation of Crimea.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. His thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be defended in November. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.