Russian government advocates “federal system” for Ukraine

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently advocated a “federal system of government” for Ukraine:

Lavrov said he hopes “all political forces in Ukraine will have an equal voice and can agree on which kind of concrete political, economic, financial, social, religious traditions will be respected in different parts of the country….”

Lavrov called on Western powers to back a proposal for a “federal” structure in Ukraine.

“If our Western partners are prepared, Russia, the U.S. and the EU will be able to set up a group of support to Ukraine and to formulate general appeals to those who rule in Ukraine now,” Lavrov told Russian state television, according to state news agency ITAR-Tass.

This would lead to talks between “all political forces without exception, naturally not armed radicals” and would result in a new constitution allowing for a “federal system of government,” he said.

Russia’s advocacy of federalism in Ukraine is deeply hypocritical, since the Putin regime has greatly undermined federalism within Russia itself, stripping regional governments of much of their autonomy and increasingly centralizing power in the Kremlin. This, despite the fact that Russia – like Ukraine – is a large and diverse nation that has numerous ethnic minorities, including many that have a long history of oppression at the hands of the ethnic Russian majority. In addition, it is difficult to see how a “federal system” in Ukraine can work if Russia reserves the right to occupy and annex parts of Ukraine at will, as it did in the case of Crimea.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea of a federalist approach to Ukraine’s ethnic conflicts out of hand merely because of he dubious source. Rejecting federalism for Ukraine merely because the idea is backed by Putin would be an example of co-blogger Eugene Volokh’s “reverse Mussolini fallacy.” Although Mussolini was evil, we should not reject everything he advocated merely because it was supported by an evil person (e.g. – as Eugene puts it, the fact that Mussolini “made the trains run on time” doesn’t prove that making trains run on time is bad). What is true of Mussolini is also true of Putin.

Federalism has often been a successful strategy for reducing ethnic conflict in divided societies. Cases like Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada are good examples. Given the deep division in Ukrainian society between ethnic Russians and russified Ukrainians on the one hand and more nationalistic Ukrainians on the other, a federal solution might help reduce conflict there as well by assuring each group that they will retain a measure of autonomy and political influence even if the other one has a majority in the central government. Although Ukraine has a degree of regional autonomy already, it could potentially would work better and promote ethnic reconciliation more effectively if it were more decentralized, as some Ukrainians have long advocated.

At the same time, even the best possible federal system is only likely to diminish intergroup hostility gradually. It cannot dissipate longstanding antagonisms and mistrust overnight. In order for Ukrainians to get that time, there must be effective safeguards against further Russian military intervention. If Russia can invade and occupy additional parts of Ukraine at any time, that undermines Ukrainian factions’ incentives to invest in the success of a longterm constitutional settlement. Ukrainian nationalists will also be reluctant to concede greater autonomy to ethnic Russians if that autonomy can turn into a pretext for annexation by Russia, as has already happened in the case of the officially autonomous region of Crimea.

UPDATE: Russia’s hypocrisy on this issue is highlighted in the Ukrainian foreign ministry’s response to Lavrov’s statement:

In an unusually harsh statement issued late on Sunday in reaction to comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said he was making demands on Ukraine which Russia would never allow itself at home.

“Why does Russia not introduce federalism … Why does it not give more powers to national regions of the (Russian) Federation .. Why does it not introduce state languages, other than Russian, including Ukrainian, which is spoken by millions of Russians?”, it asked.

“There’s no need to preach to others. It’s better to put things in order in your own house,” it said.

The Ukrainian government’s point is well-taken. However, Russian hypocrisy does not prove that federalism isn’t the right approach for Ukraine.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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