Ukraine’s ‘regionalism of convenience’

May 6

Ukrainian soldiers set up a Ukrainian flag on an armored vehicle while manning a checkpoint near the eastern Ukranian city of Slavyansk on May 6, 2014.  (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post from University of Birmingham political scientist Kataryna Wolczuk.

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While Ukraine’s numerous sub-national identities have become particularly politicized recently, regional diversity in Ukraine has been a political hot potato since independence in 1991. Unfortunately, efforts at national integration over the last two decades have failed to sufficiently bridge the gaps between communities. This has lead to a full-blown political confrontation over regional identity lines, with grave ramifications for Ukraine’s political cohesion and territorial integrity.  

Ukraine’s regions display differences in three main respects: 1) How to interpret nationalism (and the role of Russia) in Ukrainian history; 2) the position of Russian language and culture; and 3) relations with Moscow, especially regarding Russia-led integration projects. Reconciling these differences has been hampered by political and economic elites in the country’s eastern regions attempts to exploit these divides for political gain.

The patterns of this exploitation are well rehearsed. Eastern Ukrainian elites, as evidenced by president Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, have tended to demonize Ukrainian nationalism, including accusing nationalist ideas of being fascist or neo-Nazi. At the same time, they have underlined the rights of the regions to choose to be autonomous of Kyiv, implicitly threatening to not comply with policies set in the capital.

These tendencies started in the early 1990s, when eastern elites used anti-nationalist rhetoric against president Kravchuk (1991-94) to apply pressure on the authorities in Kyiv. When the eastern candidate (president Leonid Kuchma) won the 1994 presidential election, however, eastern elites briefly became less inclined to provoke protest on a regional level. 

When Kuchma’s anointed successor, Yanukovych, faced accusations of electoral fraud during presidential elections of 2004, the question of separatism and federalism in eastern Ukraine was promptly reopened. A conference of “eastern Ukrainian leaders in Donbas,” which included some prominent Russian politicians, called for a referendum on the federalization of Ukraine. While elites were espousing a vaguely defined “separatism,” there were no signs that there was mass support for separatism in the East.

After Yanukovych’s Party of Regions lost control of the government (as a result of the parliamentary elections in 2007), another conference promoting separatism was organised in the Donbas region in February 2008. The unresolved issue of the status of the Russian and Ukrainian languages in Ukraine combined with debates regarding budgetary devolution combined into a convenient topic for political bargaining.

The Maidan and the ousting of Yanukovych has triggered yet another wave of separatist demands in the eastern region, this time marked by physical violence, numerous deaths, kidnapping and the takeover of government buildings by militants. This separatist uprising has included overt collusion with Russia-backed activists, Russian forces, local law-enforcement units (e.g. police), regional politicians as well as region-based oligarchs, such as Renat Akhmetov. Russia’s direct involvement in stirring separatist sentiments has given the domestic dispute a geopolitical dimension too.

In short, since Ukraine’s independence, regional differences and the specter of separation could be exploited for electoral gain, particularly by eastern elites. When in control of key institutions in the capital, however, eastern Ukrainian elites supported a highly centralized system of governance, as was evident during Yanukovych’s stay in power. Once out of power again, elites again exploit Ukraine’s centrifugal tendencies, claiming more power to the regions on an ad hoc basis. 

Not surprisingly, politicians that profit from the conflict over regional identity have not articulated a clear political program for decentralization, federalization or addressing language issues on a long term or compromise basis. Keeping the agenda opaque and identity-based means that that clientelistic and corrupt practices can reign rather than actual programmatic politics.

Regional differences in Ukraine were amplified during the 1994 and 2004 presidential elections, though nothing like on the scale of events of 2014 when Russia’s active involvement is moving the two neighbors ever close to direct warfare. Russia favors what it calls “federalization” – which in practice would amount to ‘confederation’ – to create pro-Russian enclaves within Ukraine and block Ukraine’s integration with the EU by granting federal units extensive degree of power (e.g. to conduct foreign policy). In practice, this would then offer Moscow a veto offer Ukraine’s foreign policy.

A more effective way to reform the center-periphery relations would be through systematic and comprehensive decentralization — including devolution of budgetary resources — aimed at removing regional concerns from a bargaining process complicated by high geopolitical stakes. But this is a difficult time to engage in a thorough and systematic overhaul, due to Russia’s strategy of destabilizing Ukraine on the regional, if not national level. What is needed is sufficient political will and determination of the national and regional elites to, at last, break this apparently never-ending, highly disruptive cycle.

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Past Monkey Cage posts on developments in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea can be found by clicking here.  Recent posts include:

Kimberly Marten: Ukraine and the problem of local warlords

Dmitry Gorenburg: Opposition in Ukraine: A tale of two maps

Joshua Tucker: What would make Southeast Ukrainians take up arms?

Tomila Lankina and Kinga Niemczyk: What Putin gets about soft power

Maria Popova: What is lustration and is it a good idea for Ukraine to adopt it?

Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff: The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene

M. Steven Fish: The end of the Putin mystique

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