Participants in a pro-Ukraine rally held Sunday in Warsaw carry a map of Ukraine. (Czarek Sokolowski/ AP)

The following is a guest post from Oxford University political scientist Gwendolyn Sasse and London School of Economics political scientist James Hughes.

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The idea of a remaking of Ukraine’s constitutional order along federal lines is beginning to gain traction. On March 18, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk reached out to Russophones in the eastern and southern regions, announcing that “new measures linked to decentralization of power will be reflected in a new constitution.” Senior U.S. administration officials have encouraged the Ukrainian leadership to consider constitutional reform along federal lines.

On March 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry proposed the establishment of an international “support group” to manage the crisis. The list of items that Russia wants to be the basis for negotiation in Ukraine includes a new federal structure for Ukraine and the recognition of Russian as a second language.

Until recently the federal idea was an anathema among the greater part of Ukraine’s political elite. As a constitutional form it was largely rejected in the 1990s, partly as a negative reaction to the experience of Soviet federalism, and partly from fear of its centrifugal potential for splitting the country along ethnolinguistic fault lines.

The negative view of federalism as a destabilizing constitutional order in ethnically divided places was one that was not only perceived by elites as a lived experience in former communist federations, such as the Soviet Union successor states Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, but was also prevalent among scholars studying the collapse of communism. Federalism, or “ethnofederalism” as it was usually termed by political scientists, came to be seen as part of the problem of “mismanaging” ethnically diverse countries, not part of the solution.

The turmoil in Ukraine suggests that now is a good time to reassess the potential for federalism, “ethno-” or otherwise, for managing divided places like Ukraine.

Prospects for federalism in Ukraine

The de facto loss of Crimea could provide the momentum needed for Ukraine’s political elites to embark on a more fundamental reform of the Ukrainian state. The ideas of decentralization and federalism have undulated in the Ukrainian political discourse since the early 1990s. At first these ideas were an agenda of the western regions.

Rukh leader Vyacheslav Chornovil and the ‘national-democratic’ forces he represented promoted federalism as a means to protect the cultural distinctiveness of Western Ukraine. From the mid-to late 1990s, after independence, calls for autonomy or federalism came from the mainly Russophone south-east and Crimea, in particular in crisis situations like the Orange Revolution or the recent protests. Overall, Ukraine’s elites have been moderate in their approach to state- and nation-building.

The first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, did not impose the state language on the southeast or Crimea as envisaged by the Ukrainian language law. The cautious approach continued after the 1994 presidential elections, which saw the “eastern” candidate Leonid Kuchma defeat Kravchuk. Although Kuchma ran on an election platform of more power to the regions and the recognition of the Russian language as an official language, he actually did not deliver on this agenda during his two terms in office between 1994 and 2004.

The implicit consensus on balancing regional interests helped to preserve political stability during Ukraine’s transition, while also slowing economic reforms and adjustment. It was also evident in the ambivalent foreign policy approaches toward Russia and the European Union/ NATO. Ukraine now needs to reestablish this important regional balance and has the opportunity to formalize a hitherto informal mechanism.

There are two scenarios:

First, there could be an asymmetric decentralization (that is, different agreements with different regions of the country). The new government in Kiev could engage in bilateral negotiations with individual regions in the south-east. Given the long-standing inability of Ukrainian elites to agree on the reform of center-regional relations as whole, a selective divide and rule strategy offers the advantages of fragmenting the “Russophone” bloc, and the potential for making deals on a case-by-case basis. Such a process would inevitably be largely non-transparent. This asymmetric federal approach, as with Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s approach to ethnic republics in Russia in the mid-1990s, might generate some short-term stability but it would also antagonize other regions and would be vulnerable to unraveling.

Second, there could be a state-wide process of constitutional reform with the aim of either a comprehensive federalization, or decentralization of more powers to all regions. We could expect greater powers to include self-government in culture (including language and education), economic management, taxation, and policing. The election (rather than the presidential appointment) of regional governors is an important aspect of reform. This could be part of a synchronization of regional elections, including for governors, with early parliamentary elections. This reform process could be achieved by either a constitutional convention, or a constitutional committee in parliament, followed by a state-wide referendum. These steps would generate a democratic process of debate, dialogue and engagement, and hopefully reunite Ukrainian society. There would almost certainly be international monitoring and advice. This would be no bad thing, since one thing that the United States and the E.U. are not short of is legal experts on autonomy, federalism and minority rights.

The implementation of constitutional reform depends critically on political will and leadership, and it would have to be championed by the new president to be elected in May. Constitutional reform will be on the agenda in any event, as Ukraine currently finds itself between constitutions (2004 and 2010) – and neither of these constitutions was clearly defined. Regional oligarchs will also have to be part of this process. Just how they are to be managed in the new Ukraine will be one of the greatest challenges facing the political elites. A properly functioning constitutional court that is insulated better against political interference is crucial for decentralization or federalization to be lasting.

Opponents of federalization will no doubt raise the dangers of state disintegration and secession that might flow from such a constitutional reform process, especially given the Crimea example and the ongoing unrest in the southeast. The fact that Russia has indicated that greater autonomy is its own preferred outcome for Ukraine means, however, that there is now potential for substantive negotiations to move forward – assuming that Russia can switch off the Russian nationalist mobilization that it has so far been promoting.

Reassessing the turn against “ethnofederalism”

There was a turn against ethnofederalism in the 1990s that is ripe for a reassessment. Prior to the collapse of communism, there was a dominant paradigm that federalism as “self rule and shared rule” has positive “win-win” effects on promoting stable politics, and indeed, that it was the constitutional order (following the U.S. example) that was most conducive to democracy. Federalism was also seen as an essential constitutional design for the “politics of accommodation” in “deeply divided” or “plural” societies.

From the early 1990s this paradigm was shaken by critiques which argued that federalism and autonomy more generally were highly destabilizing in ethnically divided states where the federal administrative architecture and boundaries were drawn to reflect ethnic divisions. The three socialist ethnofederations (USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) were used as cases to demonstrate this thesis. The argument is that the mode of socialist federalism, which while it was intrinsically a “sham” in terms of power distribution given that real power resided in communist parties, was flawed because of its “ethnic” structure leading to a mismanagement of nationalism.

Consequently, a major cause of the collapse was the fact that the previously disempowered federal architecture became a platform for ethnonational mobilization. Socialist-era federal structures were essentially “subversive institutions”. The negative thesis was developed further in perspectives on the “frozen conflicts” to include even the prospect of autonomy and decentralization. In the Caucasus region, autonomy was seen as “a root cause of conflict” and a driver for secession.

The causal link between ethnically defined federalism and state instability appears to be misdirected. In reality, it was precisely the “de-institutionalization of autonomy” by titular nationalities in the successor states that often provoked ethnic conflict. The Russian Federation is partially divided into ethnic units, and only Chechnya posed a serious threat to its territorial integrity. If one analyzes the case of Tatarstan and other ethnic republics of the Russian Federation the fact is that the asymmetric federalism and autonomy in key areas relating to self-rule, culture and, to some extent, economic power, was sufficient to quash secessionist demands and maintain state stability. That stability has persisted even when Putin recentralized powers from the ethnic republics to create his “power vertical” (see this recent Monkey Cage post). A similar argument holds with regard to conflict-prevention in Crimea in the 1990s (see the recent Monkey Cage post).

The Ukraine crisis offers an opportune moment to reassess the value of autonomy and federalism to peacefully manage conflict and enhance state stability. It is of note that the federal concept is now central to how policymakers see the way forward not just in Ukraine but in other places of conflict in the post-communist space, and beyond (for example, Iraq, Syria, and Libya).

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

Joshua Tucker: What is motivating Putin?

Galymzhan Kirbassov: Why the leaders of Kazakhstan are not (yet) losing sleep over Crimea

Erik Voeten: What is so great about ‘territorial integrity’ anyway?

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Note: This piece was originally published with only Sasse listed as the author.  It has been updated to reflect that it was co-authored by Sasse and Hughes.