Federalization of Ukraine: Current status


Attitudes toward federalization on the Ukraine’s political scene have been largely determined by several situational phobias. “Situational” because federalization was mentioned only sporadically and only during major political campaigns. Being de facto an oligarchic republic with key roles played by regionally-oriented financial-industrial groups, Ukraine tends to return to the idea of federalization every time when one of such groups finds itself removed from nationwide centres of decision-making and pushed to the sidelines.As a result, they start demanding a new administrative-territorial organization for the country with more independence given to the regions (primarily in economic and humanitarian spheres). However, as soon as they cease to be opposition and acquire their places in power, their aspirations to federalization, mostly declarative, immediately diminish or even fade away completely and they become vehement apologists of a unitary political system. Situation has become somewhat different as a result of a major political unrest called Euromaidan. But let’s discuss things in proper order without running ahead.

Federalism in Ukraine developed in parallel and in close connection with the ideas of statehood. Its key principles were formulated by Mikhail Dragomanov who considered federal system to be most efficient and natural for Ukraine. Dragomanovian federalism was based on the interests of “free communities” and equitable agreement-based relations between them and various administrative-territorial government structures (at that time, structures of the Russian Empire). Later, Dragomanov’s ideas were enthusiastically embraced by Ukraine’s numerous political parties which sought to implement them during the time of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. But their plans were obstructed by the civil war, specifically the coup d’etat by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky and then the coming of the Bolsheviks.

With the inclusion of Ukraine into the Soviet Union, federalization was taken off the agenda for a long time to come. The talk of Ukraine’s federalization resumed only in the late 1980s when crisis of the Soviet system, especially in the administration of government and ideology, had become obvious. The local elections held in Ukraine in March 1990 resulted in the defeat for the communist party in Galicia. Nominees of the national-democratic bloc won a decisive victory in that region. In effort to strengthen their positions in opposing the republic’s central government, they, for the first time in nearly 70 years, raised the question about federalization of Ukraine. The following is how famous Ukrainian politician and dissident Vyacheslav Chernovol saw the future political system of Ukraine:

“I see a Ukrainian Federative People’s Republic composed of such lands as Kievshchina, Podolye, Volhynia, Galicia, Bukovina, Transcarpathia, Hetmanshchina, Slobozhanshchina, Zaporozhye, Donetsk Region, Tavria… Each of these lands will have its own parliament (Donetsk Rada, Galicia Rada, etc.) and its own local government, while a bicameral … Central Rada of Ukraine will be responsible for and the guarantor of democratic rights…”

Vyacheslav Chernovol, the leader of the People’s Rukh of Ukraine [1]

But the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was not long in coming, made the whole idea obsolete as the authorities of now independent Ukraine hurried to abandon communist ideology and suddenly began demonstrating profound national consciousness and patriotism. The main opponent of the Ukrainian national-democrats – the communist party – ceased to be a serious political rival; moreover, it was banned shortly afterwards. The ideological victory, as it then seemed, caused Galicians to abandon their federalist views in favour of the long-forgotten myth about the “Ukrainian Piedmont” where Galicia was featured as the centre of national-cultural and sociopolitical revival of Ukraine. Since that time, most of the Galician political and intellectual elite have been consistent and intransigent opponents of the federalization idea seeing it as a direct threat to their vision of the future national state of Ukraine and obstruction to their efforts of popularizing nationalistic ideology in the country’s central and southeastern regions.

Ruling elites of the latter regions were temporarily pushed off from political decision-making in Ukraine on the early stage of the country’s independence. This was particularly true about the so-called “red directors” – heads of major industrial complexes or company-towns – who were de facto responsible for situation in their regions. The dissatisfaction of the southeastern elites, first of all in the Donetsk region, added fuel to the talk of federalization accompanied by massive strikes of coal miners and various polls. One of such polls was organized by the Donetsk regional council shortly before the 1994 election, and contained, among other questions, the following one: “Do you consider it necessary for Ukraine to shift to a federal system?” Predictably, the majority of respondents gave affirmative answer to this question. However, with the inclusion of Donetsk political elite representatives into power structures, federalist rhetoric had abated.

It was revived again only in November 2004 in the wake of Viktor Yanukovich’s (then former prime minister of Ukraine and earlier – Donetsk regional governor) defeat at presidential election. Yanukovich’s supporters, namely Kharkov governor Yevgeny Kushnarev and Lugansk regional governor Alexander Yefremov, initiated the project of “Southeastern Ukrainian Autonomous Republic.” The idea was publicly announced by Boris Kolesnikov (then head of the Donetsk regional council) at the First All-Ukraine Congress of Deputies of all Levels held in the city of Severodonetsk, and, predictably, received a majority support. But the plan was never implemented largely because of the conformist position taken by the Yanukovich’s entourage and the changes of the formal “rules of the game.” The constitutional reform adopted by the Supreme Rada (parliament) of Ukraine in exchange for runoff revote effectively turned Ukraine from a presidential-parliamentary into a parliamentary-presidential republic. While Yanukovich and his Party of Regions were in opposition, the idea of federalization was raised only weakly and inconsistently. The only top-speaker in the Party of Regions who permanently accentuated federalism as key element of the party’s ideology was Yevgeny Kushnarev, but he tragically died in 2007. Yanukovich’s victory at the 2010 presidential elections did not change the ruling group’s attitude toward the idea of Ukraine’s federalization:

“Ukraine is a unitary state. Full stop.”

Viktor Yanukovich, President of Ukraine [2]

“Today, this process [federalization] would mean the loss of statehood, loss of Ukraine, loss of the national spiritual unity.”

Anna German, president’s press secretary [3]

Moreover, the opposition was in agreement with the ruling group. Yulia Timoshenko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Oleg Tyagnibok, Yury Klyuchkovsky and others repeatedly spoke against federalization. Ignored were the sporadic statements on the part of federalism proponents (first of all, Vadim Kolesnichenko and Natalia Vitrenko) to the effect that shifting to a federalist system would make local governments more efficient, improve their relations with the centre, heighten mutual control between the branches of power and catalyse the development of individual regions. In 2010-2013, federalist views were reduced to the level of political romantics and outcasts while the ruling regime remained an adamant proponent of unitary system for Ukraine.

Euromaidan did not change attitudes toward federalism too. Speakers on the both sides of the barricades erected across the Institutskaya Street repeated that federalization would be a first step to split up Ukraine. Various experts and public activists who positioned themselves as “independent” added fuel to antifederalist rhetoric of the pro-regime and oppositional politicians:

“Judging by European experience, there are no objective prerequisites for federalization for a unitary state like Ukraine. Without doubt, federalization is a big risk, a big challenge for society and state…”

Vladimir Kampo, lawyer, retired judge of the Constitutional Court [4]

“The scenario was written in Moscow, and now the whole fifth column has been brought to bear to put forth the idea of federalization.”

Stepan Khmara, dissident and human rights activist [5]

Rigid antifederalist positions were also assumed by many popular Ukrainian media (Ukrainskaya Pravda, Levy Bereg, 1+1, etc.) completely ignoring one of the fundamental principles of professional journalism – balance of opinions. Reading Ukrainian press today, one may get the impression that “federalism” is synonymic to separatism or disintegration, while the idea of changing the country’s administrative-territorial system is popular only among a handful of “Russian tourists” (that is how they call Russian citizens who arrived in Ukraine to support pro-Russian sentiments there).

Most regional leaders are also wary of federalization. Speaking against federalization (already after Yanukovich’s removal from power) was even the Donetsk regional governor (currently head of the Donetsk Regional Council) Andrey Shishatsky who did not make any public statements on the issue before that.

“We cannot afford playing federalism at the moment. This may have a bad ending, up to loss of independence.”

Andrey Shishatsky, head of the Donetsk regional administration (as of February 10, 2014) [6]

At the same time, another regional governor (the governor of the Kharkov region), Mikhail Dobkin, immediately after exacerbation in Kiev (when firearms appeared on the scene) started speaking of federalism for Ukraine as a means to stabilize situation and mitigate interregional confrontation. Several days ago Dobkin was detained for suspected encroachment on territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine and placed under home arrest. Dobkin, however, is convinced of his innocence and continues to assert his federalist views:

“I am not a criminal and I am ready to appear before any court to assert my views regarding the country’s future territorial arrangement. I still believe that federalization is one of the ways to preserve integrity and indivisibility of our country. All charges are under pretended cases, ordered by someone and of political nature.”

Mikhail Dobkin, former head of the Kharkov regional administration (as of March 15, 2014) [7]

Whatever attitude toward Euromaidan, one thing can be said for certain: it has fundamentally changed Ukraine. The level of mobilization and consolidation of civil society is the highest since the Orange Revolution. Being really afraid of street protests which are beyond their control, the ruling political group is forced to orient not on public opinion of whole Ukraine, but on that of Euromaidan which is obviously not in favour of federalization at this moment. As regards the Party of Regions, which used to be the main proponent of federalism in Ukraine over the last decade, it has not only renounced the idea completely, but lost support of a considerable part of its electorate. Part of the party’s former supporters joined the ranks of moderate supporters of Euromaidan, national spiritual unity and “integrity of Ukraine in the face of a threat of Russian intervention,” while others drifted in the opposite direction – toward the pro-Russian activists. For the latter, federalization of Ukraine is not a solution, but yet another dangerous palliative. The only segment of the Ukrainian electorate which federalists can theoretically count on is a handful of apathetical voters still remaining loyal to the Party of Regions out of inertia and hopelessness (“Who else can I choose, but the director of the factory where I work?”). But even these votes would require serious efforts to be put in by the federalists to win them over to their side, let from a doomed party. Therefore, federalization idea, with all its soundness, historical appropriateness and usefulness for Ukrainian society, will not develop any further than declarative and fruitless statements by regional politicians, not in the near future.

[1] Чорновіл В. Моя виборча програма // Політика. — 1989. — №1. (жовтень). — С.2–3.

[2] http://zaxid.net/home/showSingleNews.do?yanukovich_ukrayina_ndazh_unitarna_derzhava_krapka&objectId=1104072

[3] http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2011/01/21/5814704/view_print/?attempt=1

[4] http://glavcom.ua/news/184016.html

[5] http://www.newsru.ua/ukraine/11feb2014/expertu.html


[7] http://censor.net.ua/news/276062/dobkin_protiv_chtoby_ego_amnistirovali_po_initsiative_tigipko_ya_ne_prestupnik


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