Distorting federalism in Ukraine

By Nikolai Kovačević

It was quite a shock for those of us who live in charitable, stable and economically prosperous federations to hear EU, US and Ukrainian officials describe federalisation as an attempt to 'destroy Ukraine'.

Australia, where I'm writing this article, was recently named by the Global Youth Wellbeing Index as the best place in the world for young people to grow up. Other federations like Canada, the United States, Germany and Switzerland score similarly well in indicators like the Human Development Index.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, where much of my family originates, only saw its bloodshed end when the great powers recognised the divisions in Bosnian society and endorsed a realist constitutional framework that reflected these divisions.

Meanwhile many Australians can't help but notice what's been happening in the country of their constitutional origins since Australia federated in 1901. Much of Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922 and civil war occurred in the portion that didn't later on. Scotland is having a referendum on independence in September 2014 and the pro-independence forces are gaining ground. Nationalist parties are popular in Wales and Cornwall and even parts of England are known to call for some form of devolution. Being a unitary country hasn't stopped the UK from splitting up (formally or otherwise).

Now the time for the obligatory of-courses. Of course there are bad federations and of course there are good unitary countries but by-in-large federations have proved to be the most enduring and best incubators of good governance that the world has ever seen.

Seeing as though sovereignty is an important concern for Ukrainians (and rightfully so given recent events) let's look at this statistic. Out of the presently 206 sovereign states in the world, only 6 have survived the incinerators of the 20th century with their territorial integrity intact; Australia, Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Sweden and New Zealand. The first four of these six are federations.

Federations have the ability to produce great nations because they combine the best traits from unity and independence - those of common-wealth and home-rule, regional experimentation and national solidarity, integration and diversity.

Out of the many reasons that drove Ukrainians to protest at Maidan one of them was certainly a desire to remove their country from the legacy of the Soviet Empire. The USSR ought to remind Ukrainians of the critical failures in centralist and Utopian ideologies which regrettably appear to have continued in their country even after its independence. Federalism isn't even an ideology but rather a compromise between ruling others and letting others rule themselves and that's one of the many things that are great about it.

The first part of fixing a problem is acknowledging that a problem exists. While the legality of Russia's annexation of Crimea is questionable, the willingness of a clear majority of its inhabitants to leave a country with a similar culture, religion and language as themselves was more than convincing. At this hour masked gunmen continue to occupy government buildings in Eastern Ukraine - if not with the majority support of the regions' population then certainly with a substantial portion of it. If this isn't an indicator that Ukraine's constitutional arrangements aren't working than I don't know what is.

Ukraine may decide to become a federation or it may not. That is a decision strictly for Ukrainians and Ukrainians alone. But the fact that Russian officials may have been the first to raise this idea shouldn't automatically deny Ukrainians the opportunity to consider it.

Tal Becker, a former lead Israeli negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions, once told me that when he advised his seniors than a Palestinian proposal was something they could live with; the Palestinians immediately withdrew it because they thought the Israelis' acceptance of the proposal meant there was something wrong with it.

Ukraine's new leaders should not be as immature. I welcome their recent signals to open debate on constitutional reform. In the hope of constructively aiding this debate here are 3 quick reasons why federations won't cause an evil giant Shubin (a Ukrainian mythological spirit) to run rampant across the Donbass.

1.  Accomodating differences

Recent Ukrainian politics can be accurately compared to Game of Thrones. One mob comes down from the mountains, clears the other ones out and awards Stepan Bandera 'Hero of Ukraine'. The losers become guerrillas and go into the mountains; only to come back down, clear the others out and annul their award. This 'winner-takes-all' approach is unsustainable.

Federalisation would allow those in Lvov to commemorate their heroes and those in Odessa to commemorate theirs. Why must there be one hero for all Ukraine and every single Ukrainian?

2.  Regional Experimentation and Competition

Why have one government attempting to create good policy when you can have 27 different governments attempting to do just that and be competing against one another?

Even in failure you'd find value because as money and people flow to where good policy is in place, regions that aren't doing well would be forced to adapt and offer a competitive advantage. We've seen this occur in the US between states in New England and states in the South.

3.  Greater Participation

The greatest weakness among countries that are both unitary and exceptionally large like Ukraine is that they don't provide sufficiently meaningful avenues for their people to become involved in the democratic process.

There's an oligarch running your region like his own fiefdom? Take action by running for a parliament that's 900km away! Just be careful you don't sit between the nationalists and communists or else you may need to learn bare-knuckle boxing.

Federations are more democratic than unitary states simply because they offer more levels of government in more places for more people to be a part of.

Allow me to stress that I am not arguing that Ukraine should become a federation. That discussion and decision is strictly for Ukrainians to make. My point is that federalism will not 'destroy Ukraine' as many are claiming.

It's a good system that's brought much stability, coexistence and prosperity to many peoples across the world. Ukrainians have a right to consider it as part of their post-revolutionary future. I wish them all the best in this process.

Nikolai Kovačević

Nikolai Kovačević is a Sydney and occasionally Zagreb-based foreign policy contributor. His interests include Central European history, the EU, Middle East and post-Soviet studies.

Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov