Federalization No Magic Bullet for Ukraine’s Crisis

If Russian officials are to be believed, all Ukraine has to do to stave off further Russian aggression is federalize the state. Give the eastern regions, with their Russian-speaking minorities, a greater say in how they are governed and there is no reason for Russia to interfere, they say.

This is a ruse. It should be clear that Russia isn’t selflessly interfering in Ukraine on behalf of its supposedly oppressed ethnic Russian minority. What it seeks is a divided and weakened Ukraine, one that will be unable to join either the European Union or NATO any time soon. (Regardless of whether either bloc would ever admit Ukraine.)

Yet even Westerners who are not necessarily sympathetic to Russia’s recent campaign to destabilize Ukraine see federalization as a viable solution. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, claims that “all the leading players already know and agree about what the only solution can be, even if they disagree on the details and the timing: a federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests. This,” he writes, “not further separation, is what Moscow is proposing; and this is what the Ukrainian interim president, Olexander Turchynov, has publicly hinted at for the Donbas,” which covers the country’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, March 17, 2010

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, March 17, 2010 (Russian Government)

It is what Russia is proposing. But a closer look at just what Russia believes a federal Ukraine should look like reveals its proposal is anything but sincere.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told RT in March that Ukraine cannot continue to function as a unitary state. “Each region needs to have the opportunity to elect directly its local authorities, the executive branch and the governors, and to have all the rights and needs of its citizens satisfied across all spheres, including the economy, finances, culture, language, social activities or the right for friendly relations and travel to neighboring states,” he said.

One wonders exactly what, under Lavrov’s proposal, the central government in Kiev would be left to do? If Ukraine’s regions have their own legislatures and executives and can conduct their own economic, fiscal and foreign policies, what would be the point of there being a country called Ukraine anymore?

Proponents of Ukrainian federalization, including Lieven, point at federal states in the West, such as Germany and the United States. Like Ukraine, those countries are composed of culturally and ethnically distinct regions, each with powers specifically reserved for them. But those powers are largely limited to issues that do not affect the country as a whole, such as education policy, gun control and infrastructure. Bavaria and Texas do not get to make alliances with other countries on their own.

Moreover, the cultural and ethnic differences between, say, Bavaria and Lower Saxony are smaller than those between the southeast and west of Ukraine. The former was part of the Crimean Khanate and Ottoman Turkey before Russia conquered it in the eighteenth century. The latter was part of Poland-Lithuania and later, partially, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This Catholic and Central European heritage is still evident today whereas the southeast is altogether more Russian. It shares Russia’s Orthodox faith, language and economic structure. Whereas the west has medium-sized cities and small towns, the east has big industrial hubs — which are dependent on exports to Russia. With the exception of the capital Kiev, all Ukrainian cities with more than one million inhabitants (Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa) are in the southeast.

But the southeast isn’t a homogenous pro-Russian bloc. In the regions Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, which have the biggest ethnic Russian populations, between 10 and 30 percent voted for Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election when she campaigned to join the European Union. An IFAK Ukraine survey conducted for DW-Trend late last year found support for joining the EU lower in the southeast than it was in the western regions of Ukraine but still at 50 percent.

Ukraine 2010 election map

Ukrainian 2010 presidential election map, showing strong support for the pro-Western candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko, in the west of the country, and for the more pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych in the east (Wikimedia Commons)

Two surveys published in March also found low support for federalization. Nationwide, between 14 and 15 percent of Ukrainians said they were in favor of a federal system — and that included residents of the Crimea which has since seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia. In the southeast, support for federalization was higher, but no higher than 25 percent.

Those numbers may move up as the unrest continues. Few Ukrainians in either the east or the west want to tear their country apart and may come to see federalization as the only way to save it. Which seems to be exactly what Russia is trying to achieve by fomenting unrest and denouncing the interim government in Kiev as a “fascist” regime.

Federalization may give respite in the short term but can only destabilize Ukraine in the long run. It would strengthen regional identities and thus undermine an already fragile sense of Ukrainian nationalism. It could easily aggravate mistrust and tension, especially between Russian-speakers and nationalists, and set the stage for more “Crimeas.” Under the guise of responding to a popular will it has itself created, Russia could then eat off bits of Ukraine, whether by annexing them outright or deepening economic and diplomatic relations with the semi-independent regions.

Interestingly, even Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ally in Belarus seems to realize that. Alexander Lukashenko said in an interview last month, “If you want to preserve Ukraine as a single state — and I want to see Ukraine as an integral monolithic and unified state very much — we should not go ahead with federalization. It’s going to split the country in future and will eventually destroy the Ukrainian state.”

At least one autocrat is telling the truth.

This entry was posted in English, Nick Ottens, Ukraine.

6 Responses to Federalization No Magic Bullet for Ukraine’s Crisis

  1. Nodnarb says:

    I don’t see what would be so awful about Ukraine disappearing and several new states springing up in its place (see this piece, for example).

    Could somebody explain to me why the disintegration of Ukraine would be such a bad thing?

  2. Russia may seek to weaken Ukraine with the demand of federalization. On the other hand, Russia itself is a federal state. It comprises 85 federal subjects in 9 federal districts. I don’t share the negative view on federalization in this article and think the outcome would be highly dependent on the question how it will be implemented. Of course, the question remains if the interim authorities in Kiev are more interested in the good of the country or in preserving power.

    A role model for a highly federal state is Switzerland. It comprises 26 highly autonomous subsets (cantons). Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, government and courts. That system didn’t weaken Switzerland at all, quite the contrary, it is one of the strength of the political system of Switzerland.

  3. Nick Ottens says:

    Yes, Russia is a federal state, but more in name only. In reality, the central government in Moscow can always overrule the regions.

    The comparison with Switzerland is interesting, but I think it only underlines the argument I made in my article. Switzerland is a pretty homogenous nation with no neighboring power interested in taking sides in disputes that might arise between the cantons. The situation in Ukraine is the reverse. It is not a homogenous nation, indeed, perhaps we shouldn’t even speak of an Ukrainian “nation”. And neighbors are picking sides, aggravating internal political disputes.

    To answer Nodnarb question: The disintegration of Ukraine might not be so bad per se. What is bad is that such disintegration, under the present circumstances, would come about as the result of a major power’s interference in the country. That’s the sort of great-power politics Europe thought no longer applies to it.

    • Nick, thanks for your answer!

    • Andreas Ott says:

      I cannot see how the comparison with Switzerland should underline your argument.

      First, this is literally the first time I have ever seen some claiming that Switzerland was a homogenous country. Just as a reminder, Switzerland has four national languages. The only homogenous aspect about Switzerland is probably the fact, that all cantons are confident that they are better off being a part of this country than their neighbouring country, despite sharing the same official language and culture. But even this has not always been that clear. In several instances have people sympathised with neigbhbouring countries or have neighbouring countries tried to gain influence in Switzerland, such as prior and in the early phases of WWII.

      Second, I take your point that Ukraine is not a homogenous country. However, in my opinion, this is a very strong argument in favour of federalisation and not one against it. The more diverse a country, the more diverse are the needs of the different regions and their inhabitants. Hence, it is much less probable that a single policy, decided upon by a central government, might fulfill these diverse needs.

  4. Nick Ottens says:

    Maybe “homogenous” wasn’t the right word. What I meant to say was that the Swiss feel part of one country — or at least that’s been my impression — and there’s no strong separatist sentiment in any of the regions.

    As for Ukraine, my argument is not so much that federalization is a bad thing per se. It’s that Russia is pushing for federalization not because it sincerely believes this would be better for Ukraine, but because this could allow it strengthen ties with some regions in the southeast and more or less absorb them into Russia, effectively splitting the country.

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