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7 March, 2014  ▪  Leonid Zalizniak

Watch Out – Federalization!

Federalization of Ukraine in the past: who, how, when and with what consequences

When Ukrainians recently attempted, again, to draw closer to the European civilization, this evoked fierce resistance from Moscow and its ardent supporters within the country. The EuroMaidan has shown to the world that Ukraine can be delayed but not stopped on its way to the West. As it loses chances to keep all of Ukraine in its orbit, the imperial Moscow is trying to cut off at least its eastern part by splitting the country through federalization. The sad history of attempts to turn Ukraine into a federation is something modern-time Ukrainian federalists should keep in mind.

The spectre of federalization as an alternative to European integration was brought about by the opponents of the European choice inside and outside the country. Home-grown federalists claim that this model is commonplace in Europe, extremely democratic and best fits our traditions and realities. The ethnographic map of Ukraine is extremely diverse, they say, and the past of the Donbas is vastly different from the history of Galicia or the Crimea. This is not the first attempt to federalize Ukraine, so a historical overview is in place as the past experience definitely needs to be taken into account. Therefore, who federalized Ukraine in the past, how, when and with what consequences?

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Cultural diversity is not grounds for federalization

Since the time of ethnic divisions of humankind in the Palaeolithic Period, all peoples have been made up ethnographic groups and their languages always divided into dialects. Therefore, the division of Ukraine into cultural-historical regions or dialect groups (Lemkos, Hutsuls, Polisia natives, Volhynians, Sloboda Ukraine population, etc.) is not unique. This is a normal condition for any large developed ethnos. All great peoples of contemporary Europe, including Ukrainians, have ethnographic groups and their languages clear dialectal divisions. The French have the Provençals, Normans and others; Italians have, for example, the Florentines, Genoese, Sicilians. The same goes for Poland.

Moreover, large European nations, such as the French, Germans, Italians and Spaniards, are even more diverse than Ukrainians in some aspects. For example, anthropological data shows that most Ukrainians belong to the Dinaric racial type, while the north of France and Germany is populated largely by blond northern Caucasians and the south by dark-haired southern Caucasians. The Poles and Russians have many more anthropological strands than Ukrainians do.

However, despite the ethnic differences between some regions, European nations created mainly unitary states rather than federations. So why should the ethnographic diversity of Ukraine be grounds for doing the opposite? This logic contradicts the European principles of state building.

How federations were formed in Europe

A federation is a union of sovereign entities based on the principles of equal rights and self-government. An autonomy is less independent of the central government. However, both federations and autonomies in Europe usually unite peoples with their ethnic lands in one umbrella state. The only exception here is Germany where a federation emerged in the course of history (discussed in greater detail below).

The statement that federalism is a norm of European state building is absurd. The continent is dominated by unitary states: Poland, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, etc. Of 40 something European countries, only a handful are not unitary.

Federations arise when distinct people with their ethnic territories voluntarily unite (as in Switzerland) or as a preventive measure to keep multinational empires (Yugoslavia, the USSR, the Russian Federation) or their fragments (Czechoslovakia, Belgium) from falling apart altogether. These post-imperial unions are essentially a weak form of former empires in which a colony gained some autonomy but not equality with the centre (the USSR, Yugoslavia and the contemporary Russian Federation). Being vehicles of an inefficient system which caused the fall of empires (Spanish, Turkish, British, Soviet and Yugoslav), these quasi-federative entities are bound to split into the states ruled by individual peoples.

Thus, in Europe the federal model and autonomous entities are present mainly in countries that have incorporated various peoples with their own ethnic lands. Often, these are modernized fragments of empires which had forcefully kept the territories of several ethnoses under their control. For example, the Russian Federation includes the lands of not only Russians but also Tatars, Karelians, Chuvash, Kalmyks, Buryats and numerous Caucasian peoples. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia included the ethnic territories of the Serbs, Croatians, Slovenes, Bosnians, Kosovars and others. Czechoslovakia was a fragment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire comprising the Czechs and Slovaks with their lands. In Belgium, there are the Francophone Walloons and the Flemish living in their lands.

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The Swiss federal system with its German, French and Italian population is also sometimes held up as an example to be followed by Ukraine.

These models are unacceptable to Ukraine, because its lands are the ethnic territory of one Ukrainian people. The Crimea, the native land of the Crimean Tatars, is an exception here. In Europe, individual peoples have autonomy only in their ethnic lands, so giving it to the Russian-speaking population of the Crimea contradicts the European norms. In fact, it is a form of violence of the former empire against both the Crimean Tatars and a young Ukrainian state. Except the Tatars in the Crimea, ethnic groups in Ukraine (even the largest one, Russians) are not native to the Ukrainian land and have their historical homelands elsewhere. In other words, they cannot claim either a federative status or an autonomy in Ukraine. According to the European canons, their status should be the same as that of Arabs or Poles in France, Ukrainians in England or Russia, the British in Spain and Jews and Turks in Germany. They enjoy all civil liberties but not the right to form territorial autonomies in someone else’s ethnic lands.

The times of empires are passing, and each nation in Europe today is a master in its own home and a guest in its neighbour’s land. Regardless of how numerous the Turks are in Germany, Arabs in France, Ukrainians in England and Russians in Ukraine, they cannot claim official status for their language, or autonomy, or federal status in the territory of these countries.

Unlike Switzerland, the Russian Federation and former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, most European countries(France, Italy, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, etc.) are nation states and their borders usually coincide with the borders of the ethnic lands of a certain people. According to an established European tradition, nation states are unitary. Ukraine, which occupies the lands of one ethnos, also belongs to nation states. Thus, it should be a unitary state rather than a federation.

Germany, a monoethnic federal state, is an exception to the prevalent European practice. The explanation lies not so much in historical tradition as in the fears that the neighbouring countries had of Germany’s great-power ambitions. This is precisely how historians in Berlin explained the origins of German federalism to me in 1996. Throughout the Middle Ages, German lands were fragmented and divided among feudal lords. The number of independent duchies reached 365. When they united into one state in 1871, the Germans became so much more powerful that the repartition of the world was on the agenda. After two world wars started by Germany, the international community federalized the country in order to reduce the threat it posed to its neighbours.

In contrast, Ukraine is a young state that is not a threat to anyone. Why weaken it through federalization? If you think about who benefits from a weak Ukraine, you will find the true sources of Ukrainian federalism.

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Who federalized Ukraine and when

The idea of federalizing Ukraine did not arise because of the country’s ethnographic diversity, European standards or increasing democratic sentiments in society. It was dictated by a desire to weaken a young state in line with the ancient divide-and-rule principle. History shows that all attempts to federalize Ukraine were made by hostile external forces or their agents inside the country.

One exception here is the first federalization of Rus-Ukraine in the 12th century. It was a case of feudal fragmentation which was not imposed from the outside but was a logical stage in the development of medieval society. It weakened the first Ukrainian state so much that the Tatar invasion wiped it off the historical arena.

The 1667 Truce of Andrusovo divided Ukraine between Muscovy and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth along the Dnieper River and was also a kind of federalization. It triggered a bloody civil war tellingly called “the Ruin” and eventually led to the demise of the Cossack state. It was then that the division into easterners and westerners – so tragic for Ukraine – emerged.

Under Bolshevik rule, Russia federalized Ukraine by setting up such puppet autonomies as the Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih Republic and the Crimean autonomy. It also recognized and supported Nestor Makhno’s “free republic” as long as it was useful in fighting against the Ukrainian National Republic, General Denikin’s troops, the Germans and the French. Relying on these “independent republics”, Moscow suppressed an attempt to restore a Ukrainian state in the early 20th century and then scrapped these entities altogether.

In the interwar period, Poland “federalized” conquered Western Ukrainian lands and was trying to persuade the Lemko people that they were not Ukrainian. In Lemko schools, they even tried to replace the Ukrainian language with the Lemko dialect. Adolf Hitler was a convinced “Ukrainian federalist”. He divided the country into four parts: Galicia was made part of the General Government, while Bukovyna and the Odesa region were together named Transnistria and given to Romania, a Nazi ally. Central Ukraine was part of Reichskommissariat Ukraine headed by Erich Koch, another federalist, while eastern Ukraine was under the Nazi military administration.

The Kremlin made another attempt to “democratically” federalize Ukraine under Mikhail Gorbachev when there was a risk that Ukraine might break away from the Soviet empire. Moscow consistently and openly fuelled separatist movements in the Transcarpathian region, southern oblasts, the Donbas and the Crimea in the early 1990s. After the victory of national-democratic forces in 2005, the Kremlin’s idea to federalize Ukraine was revived – Viktor Yanukovych and Yevhen Kushnariov contrived a plan for the ill-famous South-Eastern Ukrainian Republic.

In our days, scared by the European choice of Ukrainians, Moscow and the pro-Russian Ukrainian ruling elite are grasping at the divide-and-rule principle as a drowning man grasps at a straw. This explains the current attempt to weaken the country through federalization after which its eastern part will go to Russia. However, modern-time Ukrainian supporters of federalization should remember that what they are trying to do to Ukraine is a delirious dream of not only their favourite Joseph Stalin but also Hitler and Koch.

History shows that each federalization attempt in Ukraine was accompanied by prolonged bloodshed and led to subjugation. Haven’t our leaders, who, instigated by the Kremlin, are willing to make the same historical mistake, learned the sobering lessons of the past? They are threatening federalization in order to preserve their criminal power. If history is any guide here, this will plunge the country into bloody confrontation.

Federalism or separatism

Eastern Ukraine is one of the regions that have been the subject of federalization talk. However, it is home to an ethnographic group of Ukrainians (Slobozhany), so its separation would be not federalization but separatism, according to the European norms. Separatism is considered to be one of the gravest state crimes because it pushes the nation into a civil conflict. Nations and their leaders who fail to understand this are bound to step down from the historical arena, all the more so if they cannot learn lessons from their country’s past. Unlawful appeals made by ranking officials should not be justified by references to freedom of expression in Ukraine. Even in the biggest democracies of the world, an appeal to split the country is subject to prosecution rather than a topic for public discussion.

Imagine the reaction of Moscow and entire Russian society if Ryazan Oblast or Arkhangelsk Oblast decided to break off. What would the French do if Brittany, Gascony or Provence said they wanted to become independent entities within a federation? Why is the Ukrainian justice system silent, while our post-Soviet statesmen view separatist talk as a manifestation of democracy? Are Ukrainians already more democratic than the French? Have Ukrainians forgotten the sad history of Ukraine federalization attempts? Or is there anyone wishing to join the ranks of such federalists as Stalin and Hitler?

Competition among nations for a place under the sun in today’s crammed world is only increasing despite all the talk of democracy and mutual tolerance. Therefore, if a nation and its state are incapable of adequately and rapidly reacting to such challenges as separatism, they are doomed to be subjected and assimilated by their more aggressive neighbours. Isn’t it time for our post-colonial criminalized “elite” to yield to a new, more dynamic generation of leaders who have no memory of being enslaved by Russia? Without this, Ukraine will keep repeating the mistakes of federalization, “brotherly” unions and so on.

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Therefore, neither ethnographic diversity nor Ukrainian or world history furnishes any grounds for a federal Ukraine. On the contrary, the majority of large European nations with which Ukraine has close historical, cultural and spiritual ties have formed unitary states despite having ethnographically heterogeneous populations. These include Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, France, Italy and others. Numerous attempts to federalize Ukraine have been imposed from the outside by those who want to divide and rule. These historical lessons should be kept in mind by both the Ukrainian supporters of federalization who look up to Moscow and all Ukrainian citizens. They should be a safeguard against another criminal proposal of federalization, which inevitably leads to a civil conflict.

Ukrainians should not let themselves be fooled into destroying Ukraine through federalization that serves as a cover-up for plain separatism. In all civilized countries of the world, separatism is recognized as a grave crime, because it leads to splits, civil bloodshed and the death of the state and its citizens.


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