Sunday, April 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Is Federalization Now Putin’s Strategy for Undermining All of Russia’s Neighbors?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 13 – The vehemence of Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s opposition to Moscow’s proposal for the federalization of Ukraine suggests that this Russian demand may not be an ad hoc position reflecting uniquely Ukrainian situation but part of a broader strategy to break and ultimately re-subordinate neighboring countries.

            Not only would such an approach have the effect of weakening the central governments of these states and thus make them more susceptible to Moscow’s control, but such a strategy generally deployed would have the additional advantage from the Kremlin’s point of view: the United States, a federal state par excellence, would find it harder to oppose.

            And the possibility that Moscow has adopted that strategy is strengthened by three additional facts: the Russian or Soviet authorities have modified the borders of all of its neighbors at one point or another, Russian officials in recent weeks have mentioned regional issues in each of them, and Moscow has a long history of creating or suppressing regional and ethnic groups to fit its needs.

            In responding to such a strategy if indeed the Kremlin has adopted it, it is important to keep in mind that federal states are  rare – there are only 23 of them in the world even in nominal terms, fewer than the number of monarchies – because they require constitutional, legal and societal agreement on the basic parameters of who does what.  Creating a new one is hard.

            And it is equally important to understand that Putin’s view of federalism is asymmetrical in three ways.  First, he is not in favor of the division of powers among legislative, executive and judicial branches at any level but only on a division between a unitary central government and unitary governments in region.

            Second, the Russian president is not responding to demands from below for the creation of federalism but rather creating them and defining not only from above but from abroad who should be allowed to have a federal unit, what the borders of that unit should be, and what powers its government should have.

            And third, Putin has made it clear how hypocritical he is about federalism because he has systematically destroyed most of the elements of federalism that some in Russia tried to put in place in the 1990s and had made it clear that he will suppress efforts by anyone to demand that Moscow live according to the Russian constitution in that regard.

            These reflections are prompted by the Belarusian leader’s declaration again today that Ukraine would split if it were federalized and that he is in favor of maintaining Ukraine as a unitary state, positions very much at odds with those of the Kremlin with whom his country is joined in a union state (

            “If you want to preserve Ukraine as a single state ... and I very much want this,” Lukashenka said, then “one should not federalize it” because that would lead to the splitting apart of Ukraine and the destruction of the state itself. He concluded: “I am categorically against federalization because I am for a united Ukraine.”

            Lukashenka’s words are unlikely to attract a lot of attention internationally because he is viewed with such hostility as “the last dictator in Europe.” Those who do pay attention to them are likely to dismiss them as nothing more than a reflection of someone who doesn’t want to yield power ever and feels threatened now.

            But there is more to it than that. Lukashenka and his advisors undoubtedly remember that their republic, despite its relative ethnic homogeneity, has divisions that outsiders can and have exploited, not only between ethnic Russians and ethnic Belarusians, although Moscow has played on these, but also among Belarusians.

            During Gorbachev’s time, Moscow tried to weaken Belarusian unity by playing up linguistic differences among the Belarusians by sponsoring at least three regional literary magazines which used different Belarusian dialects, the last of a long line of Soviet efforts to exploit such divisions and one that collapsed largely because the USSR ran out of time.

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