The future of Ukraine revolves around its very identity if not its borders – member of the EU and NATO or part of the Russian Federation and its Eurasian association, with Crimea or without, with its eastern section in tact or not. Another alternative, put forward by Moscow, would have Ukraine minus Crimea remain one entity ruled from Kiev as a loose confederation. But for the present government in Kiev as well as for most western leaders, federalism for Ukraine is a dirty f-word.
The identity question reflects the obvious divisions within present-day Ukraine. Differences in religion and cultures have become the focal point for developing tensions that threaten to erupt into a civil war and a flashpoint for reviving international Cold War antagonisms if not hostilities. There seem to be two very clearly defined groups and positions within the country with two very opposing visions for the future.
Instead of a civil war or division of the country in two, federalism, on paper, would seem to be the perfect solution. A loose confederation of regions would be able to be representative of both local interests, as proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. Think of Switzerland, as I’m sure Swiss Foreign Minister and Chairperson-in-Office of the OSCE Didier Burkhalter has done. The Swiss Confederation is able to encompass three different cultures with three official languages. Certainly there are moments of tension between the three main regions, and certainly on various national issues there are differences between the German, French and Italian speakers. Think of the rösti graben. But in the long term, the Swiss federal system has worked, much as the United States federal system has worked to balance states rights vs. federal rights and North-South East-West concerns. Switzerland and the U.S. have had civil wars, but the federal systems have endured.
So why is federalism such a dirty f-word for Ukraine? The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was both a highly centralized system directed from Moscow and a series of highly decentralized autonomous regions such as the former Autonomous Republic of Crimea or the Autonomous Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the government of Georgia tried to bring the latter two autonomous republics back into the fold. As a high Georgian official told me when I tried to convince her of the value of federalism, “We have to centralize before we decentralize,” something the government of Tbilisi had done in Adjara in 2004 before it unsuccessfully tried to do the same with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In other words, the fear in Kiev is that by decentralizing power in the eastern part of the country the central government will lose control, as the Georgians did with the two break-away republics. Too much autonomy, it is argued, will lead to the disintegration of the central authority. Added hesitation comes from the fear of the potential influence of Russia in decentralized regions on its border, such as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There are precedents here against giving greater autonomy to eastern Ukraine.
Is the Swiss example nevertheless helpful? One of the most cogent arguments against federalism in countries like Georgia and Ukraine is that the Swiss example is not helpful because besides the three original cantons, Uri, Schwytz and Unterwalden, the other entities voluntarily joined the confederation. Instead of a top down creation, Swiss federalism was developed bottoms up, as was the United States after the original 13 colonies. To federalize from above is not the same as independent or autonomous regions joining a confederation on their own.
Whatever the final results of Ukraine’s future identity will be, it is intriguing to see how federalism has become such a taboo in the current negotiations. What would seem to be a perfect resolution to the current crisis on paper appears totally unacceptable in Kiev and the West.