Sunday, February 9, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Federalism Would Help Ukraine Overcome Russian Legacy Not Threaten Its Future, Shteppa Says

Paul Goble

                Staunton, February 9 – This week, Vitaly Klichko, a leader of the Ukrainian, became the latest in a long line of people, Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike, to argue that even talking about the federalization of his county is “the path to its destruction” and that those who do so “must not be called Ukrainians”  (

            That argument rests on the widespread belief that federalization would exacerbate differences between the predominantly ethnic Ukrainian West and the predominantly ethnic Russian East and that those would allow Moscow at a minimum to continue to interfere in Ukrainian politics and could ultimately allow the Russian Federation to split Ukraine in two.

            But those who take that position ignore two things. On the one hand, many, perhaps most ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, as the absence of widespread support in that region for efforts to oppose the Maidan, are loyal Ukrainian citizens for whom ethnic identity is not more important than citizenship and who like other Ukrainians want a better life in a European state.

            And on the other, it ignores the very real contributions federalism, political and especially budgetary, can make to limiting the power of the central government in Kyiv and thus helping Ukrainians of all ethnic groups to escape from the hyper-centralization that they have inherited from the Russian and Soviet pasts.

            If the first of these problems with the anti-federalist arguments has received some attention, the second has not. That makes a new article by Vadim Shteppa, a leading regionalist in the Russian Federation and editor of the “Inache” journal, on the subject especially important (

            After pointing out that Klichko’s rhetoric on this point – treating “every political opponent not as an opponent but as ‘an enemy of the country’” – corresponds to Russian official language, Shteppa notes that the Ukrainian opposition figure ignores the fact that Mihail Hrushevsky and Vyacheslav Chornovil supported federalism but are still honored as Ukrainians.

            Federalism, he says, “is one of the possible projects of the state future of Ukraine which deserves free discussion,” and that discussion must begin by acknowledging that federalism has not led to the disintegration of countries like the US and Germany but rather has kept the central governments of those and other federal states more limited and the population more free.

            Shteppa then cites a passage from his own January 31 “Izvestiya” article ( Because of its relevance to any discussion of federalism in Ukraine in the future, it deserves to be quoted in full.

            “Leonid Kuchma at one time in his book “Ukraine is Not Russia” attempted to show that his country is traditionally more democratic in comparison with its northern neighbor.  Howeveer, the 1995 Constitution adopted during his presidency confirmed the harsh unitary nature of state administration there.

            “It is indicative that in post-Soviet Ukraine in general there were never any gubernatorial elections. With the exception of Crimea – but even there, the elections of a president of the republic took place only once, in 1994, and then were disbanded together as was the position itself.

            “The situation did not change with the arrival of Yushchenko who loudly proclaimed his pro-European orientation. But at the same time he completely ignored the growth of regionalism in contemporary Europe preferring as had others in the past to talk about Ukraine’s ‘unified power system.’

            “The victory of Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions in 2010 to a large extent,” Shteppa argues, “was a reaction precisely to such unitarism. However, the name of this party turned out to be a fake: under Yanukovich, the level of oblast self-administration did not increase at all and the current president only installed in gubernatorial chairs members of his own party. And now the Ukrainian bureaucratic vertical is disintegrating.”

                “Today,” he continues in his new comment, “the majority of regional resources and taxes just as in Russia go to the capital.” Indeed, in this regard, “the Ukrainian authorities are very much like the Russian ones. 

            But what is especially disturbing is that the Ukrainian “’democratic’ opposition’” just like its Russian counterpart continues to think in just as much a centralist and unitarist way as do the authorities they oppose, viewing any increase in the power and authority of the regions as a threat to the territorial integrity of the country and to themselves.

            The way to oppose centralism is not to prohibit any discussion of it, Shteppa says, but to make it “meaningless” from an economic point of view by ensuring that because of a high standard of living and general political freedoms, everyone in the country will see remaining within that state something valuable and worth defending.

            In recent weeks, he continues, “the ideas of federalism have suddenly began to be advanced by communists and [members of the Party of the Regions],” a source that has led many civic activists to view this as a plot to split Ukraine and allow for Russia to “swallow” it piece by piece.

            Some of these new supporters of federalism may indeed have that goal, but the reality is, Shteppa argues, that federalism, properly constructed, can in fact work against such goals because it is based on “the mutual interests” of the subjects of the  federation itself, a contribution that some Maidan strategists like Aleksey Arestovich understand.

            If one looks at what is happening in Europe, the regionalist theorist says, one sees that the future is in federalism and in the formation of Euro-regions, many of which cross existing international borders.  Such regions are emerging between parts of Ukraine and adjoining parts of the Russian Federation.

            “Of course,” Shteppa says, “Russia will seek to spread through this cross-border format its political and economic influence. But what is there to prevent Ukraine from doing the same and promoting its civilizational interests onto Russian territory?” Indeed, if Ukrainians are confident of their future, they have every reason to believe they can do just that.

            For the time being, there exists “a strange paradox” among the Ukrainian opposition. “Even as it rejects the federal transformation of the country and supports the unitarism of the state, the Ukrainian opposition by so doing in fact is supporting the ‘vertical’ Yanukovich” is relying upon.

             If Ukraine does not move toward a federal system, Shteppa argues, it “risks remaining ‘a Little Russia,’” a miniature version of today’s “unitary Russia.” Besides that, it ensures that Ukrainian politics will continue to reflect tensions between east and west rather than moving toward one in which both places will have a vested interest in Ukraine as a whole.

            Shteppa concludes that Ukraine “of course” shouldn’t copy what passes for federalism in Russia. Instead, the country should look to Germany with its powerful lander governments. Indeed, he suggests, a movement to federalism in Ukraine could be a way out of that country’s political crisis and have a positive impact on Russia as well.

            Obviously, any move to federalism in Ukraine will be difficult, perhaps more difficult than Shteppa imagines, especially given the histories of both Ukraine and its neighbor. Indeed, despite their utility, federal systems are rare: there are fewer of them than there are monarchies in the world today.

             But if the regions of Ukraine see that they benefit from the current state borders and view politics less as about capturing Kyiv or exiting from a unitary Ukraine, that country will have a far greater chance of returning to Europe than if it tries to continue with the discredited unitarism of the current regime.

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