A Federal Option for Ukraine?

Decentralization might be the only way to keep Ukraine together, argues Karlo Basta.
By: /
March 13, 2014

Crimea, the only part of Ukraine that enjoys limited political autonomy, is on the brink of secession. This reality makes federalism, already despised among Euromaidan supporters, a deeply unattractive idea for the future political organization of the Ukrainian state. Yet, it is precisely the potential secession of Crimea that would make some kind of constitutional re-engineering more necessary than before. Below, I outline why such an approach might help manage some of the political challenges facing the Ukrainian state.

Why federalism?

Territorially-based political autonomy has been implemented as a conflict management device in many divided states. Its greatest advantage is that it disperses power and makes the political domination of one group by another less likely. While we cannot characterize Ukraine as a multinational state, it is certainly not a nation-state either. Its political divisions are not purely ethno-linguistic (they overlap imperfectly with ethno-cultural lines), but they are deep (and deepening), lasting, and most importantly, regionally defined. Moreover, even if we take Crimea out of the equation, these rifts remain and may become more entrenched.

Some of the recent governments in Kyiv have tended to draw disproportionately on one of two segments of Ukraine’s population: the one residing in the west or the other one, in the south and east of the country. Whatever balance might have existed between the two de-facto political communities would be unsettled by the departure of Crimea. As Keith Darden recently noted, pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine need Crimea’s electorate, as without it their chance of capturing power in Kyiv diminishes appreciably.

Ensuring that electoral results are not viewed as an unpalatable domination by the “other side” might call for the diffusion of political power through federalization. Creating federal units and granting them meaningful political autonomy may ensure that each of the two political communities has control over certain areas of domestic policy. One of the first laws enacted by the post-Yanukovych government revoked the use of Russian as an official regional language. This decision has since been reversed, but it has already intensified the existing mistrust toward the new government among residents in the east and south of the country. Decentralization, especially if accompanied by entrenched language rights, might defuse some of the tensions created in recent weeks. More significantly, regional self-government would make the control of the center less important by dispersing political power.

Speculating on the modalities

What might a federal Ukraine look like? How could it address the concerns of all of the major parties to the conflict? The following counterfactual exercise demonstrates some of the limitations and possibilities of this sort of reform.

Ukraine should probably not be a bi-zonal federation along the lines of the former Czechoslovakia. For political elites elected by the western half of the country, this might appear uncomfortably close to the de-facto separation of the state in two. The alternative is to organize eastern and southern regions of Ukraine into several federal units.

Should the Western half of the country reflect this institutional principle, or should it be organized differently? Several options are available. One would be the British model of federacy, whereby southern and eastern regions would enjoy autonomy, with the west being governed directly from Kyiv. This solution is problematic on several grounds, one of which might be a particularly acute version of the West Lothian question. Depending on the parliamentary decision-making procedure, legislators from the south and east sitting in Verkhovna Rada would be able to legislate on a number of matters for western Ukraine. On the other hand, MPs from the west would not be able to do the same for the autonomously governed territories. This presents one argument for why federacy is not a good choice for Ukraine.

But if the western part of the country should also be federalized, should it be constituted as a single unit, or several? For a state as impoverished as Ukraine, proliferating regional legislatures and bureaucracies would not be the most ideal solution. However, federations with one demographically dominant unit tend not to have the best odds of survival. The possibility that such a powerful unit could overwhelm the federal centre would be especially acute in today’s Ukraine. This leaves the option of constituting western parts of the country into several federal units, resulting in a fairly symmetrical federal state.

To preclude easy unilateral challenges to such an arrangement, each federal unit should have its autonomy constitutionally guaranteed, with status changes subject to federal unit veto. Simultaneously, minority language and cultural rights must be ensured. There should also be guarantees for political representation for the ethnic and linguistic minorities in all federal units, as well as their guaranteed representation in key public institutions (e.g. regional police forces).

The counter-argument to such a plan is that federalization under current conditions, regardless of the number of territorial units, would make the country’s breakup more likely. However, as recursive attempts at secession in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo have demonstrated, if there is desire, and especially if separatists have an external sponsor, secession is not impeded by absence of prior autonomous institutions. The real issue is weakening the incentives for separation, a goal that federalism might help to achieve.

None of the above addresses the key issue of Ukraine’s external orientation. Here is where the organization of the central government becomes important. Ukraine’s foreign policy, particularly its membership in international organizations, should be subject to mutual veto by both sides. The specific mechanisms for achieving this might take a variety of forms, one of which could require the consent of a minimum number of federal units to ensure de facto veto for each of the communities. This would preclude the government moving closer to either Russia or the European Union without the consent of both sides, preventing the replay of Yanukovych’s flip-flop from EU to Russia that kick-started the current crisis.

Warts (and all?)

I am not arguing that institutions (federal or otherwise) guarantee a happy ending with durable stability and flawless democracy. Rather, the trick is to devise an institutional setup that provides the best chance of arriving at such an outcome. A carefully developed and negotiated federal constitution, with appropriate safeguards at the centre, would have the potential to assuage the concerns of most parties to this conflict, and balance the interests of the two major identified political communities.

However, it is clear that federalism is not simply a technical term in Ukraine. Even prior to Russia’s de facto take-over of Crimea, the idea was tainted, among other things, by Moscow’s support for it. Crimea’s potential secession and annexation to Russia would take this option completely off the table. This is yet another reason Russia’s policy on Ukraine over the past weeks has been a disaster.  

Even if federalism were to be a feasible answer to Ukraine’s internal divisions, it is highly unlikely any Ukrainian politician with their base of support in the west of the country would be willing to accept it. Yet, if federalism is not (part of) the answer, what is? By insisting on more of the same, future governments might foster the very outcome they would rather avoid: the disunity of Ukraine.