The Un-United States of Ukraine

Ukrainian politicians are united on the idea of more regional autonomy, but they seem to draw a red line on the question of federalism. That, they fear, would play right into Moscow's hands.

Kiev's Ministry of Justice in January 2014
Kiev's Ministry of Justice in January 2014
Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — Preparations for Ukraine’s presidential elections are taking place against the backdrop of a major disagreement over the country’s future. The presidential favorite, Petro Poroshenko, insists that the planned constitutional reforms should not fundamentally change the current model of a unified government. In the plan Poroshenko favors, the new constitution would greatly increase the responsibilities and powers of local authorities — but it doesn’t mention “federalism.”

That is also the position favored by the current leaders in Kiev. Faced with protests in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov has promised to change the constitution to give the regions more authority to choose their own leadership. But there has been no talk about instituting bona fide federalization.

Reviewing the platforms of Ukraine’s presidential candidates, it’s also clear that supporters of a federalist system are in the minority. Of the well-known candidates, only two openly support federalization: Mikhail Dobkin from the “Party of Regions” and Community Party head Petr Simonenko. They both argue that only federalization can save the country from collapse. But they are also both outsiders, and have no chance of overtaking any of the three frontrunners.

The position held by Serhiy Tihipko, who is currently the third most-popular presidential candidate, is particularly interesting. As recently as 2009, he was calling on people not to fear federalization and saying that “well-designed federalism could do us good.” But judging by his recent comments, his position has changed dramatically. “Just bringing up that question is criminal,” he said recently. “Trying to solve our problems through federalization will only lead to a break-up and possible liquidation of our country. That is a terrible scenario, but there are powers that very much want to make it come true.”

Why is it that Ukrainian politicians, who acknowledge the need for more regional autonomy, have drawn a red line when it comes to federalization?

The answer is related to Russian-Ukrainian relations. A significant part of Ukraine’s elite considers federalism a “Russian project.” They think that Moscow is trying to encourage it so it can pressure regional leaders to prevent the central government from taking steps towards integration with Europe.

“Federalization is one of the ultimatums that Putin has given us for a peaceful co-existence,” Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and the candidate with the most experience dealing with the Kremlin, recently said. “We are told: Turn the eastern and southern regions into something like Crimea, in terms of rights and opportunities, and we will take advantage of that federalization to turn the rest of your territory into something resembling the autonomous republic of Crimea.”

Although Moscow denies trying to rewrite Ukraine’s constitution for its own purposes, it does not hide its support for a federalist Ukraine. “The centralized government of Ukraine no longer works,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov recently said. “It was destroyed by political cataclysm.” In his opinion, “federalization is the way to allow each region to feel comfortable.”

Federalist models

The Ukrainian media reports that Andrei Luev, who was vice director of government administration under fallen President Viktor Yanukovych, is trying to write a constitution that would please Russia. According to the leak, the German constitution is being used as an example. That document holds that there is no right for a territory to secede, although there is a provision for territorial changes between the German Bundeslands after a referendum. But there is no right for a region to leave the federation.

Germany isn’t the only potential example. There are 24 federal systems in the world that could serve as models for Ukraine. Another European example is Belgium, which is a unique type of multi-level federal state. It’s also constantly teetering on the brink of disintegration due to conflicts between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country.

Another post-Communist example from Eastern Europe is Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes the Serbian Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation. There, the central government controls monetary policy and international relations, while the two separate parts of the country have their own presidents, parliaments and law enforcement agencies — as well as the right to separate agreements with neighboring countries. But that model hasn’t ensured stability in Bosnia, which continues to suffer from a dysfunctional government and periodic protests.

Of course, the United States is another federalist example. But during his recent visit to Kiev, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made no mention of federalism in Ukraine. Biden characterized the upcoming presidential elections, which should bring one of the opponents of federalization to power, as the “most important elections in Ukrainian history.”

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