Decentralizing Ukraine: an Issue that Deserves Serious Discussion

August 8, 2013
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

In Ukraine’s famously dysfunctional politics, it is standard to note the regional diversity of the country, and even that there are “two Ukraines.” (Or, depending on the analyst, perhaps three, four, or even as many of eight Ukraines!) A recent analysis by Professor Alexander J. Motyl of Rutgers University, a frequent commentator on Ukrainian affairs, asks some pointed questions about prospects for Ukraine’s decentralization (“Is Decentralizing Ukraine Possible?”) that so far haven’t received the attention they should have in furthering a serious discussion about how to manage Ukraine’s diversity.

Leaving aside Motyl’s repeated and gratuitous references to President Yanukovych as Ukraine’s “sultan,” he criticizes the current administration and of the Party of Regions’ (PoR) for jettisoning their former advocacy of decentralization in favor of increasing centralization. Of course this is hardly surprising. Any regionally based political force is all for decentralization when in opposition, only to discover the attractions of a unitary state when they gain power:

“Unfortunately, the Regionnaires aren’t alone in preferring centralization to decentralization. Every Ukrainian president—from Leonid Kravchuk to Leonid Kuchma to Viktor Yushchenko—has concentrated power in his hands. But remember: centralization is not some typically Ukrainian impulse. When left alone, most states at most times concentrate power.”

Paradoxically, he suggests, it is precisely the centralization of power in a country as diverse as Ukraine that perpetuates a pattern of incompetent and corrupt governance, which also is not unique to the PoR. Motyl advances some arguments for decentralization, most of them aimed at the question of not stopping corruption but channeling it: that at a regional level, “local crooks” can’t steal as much; that maybe since the crooks are local boys themselves they’ll “have a slightly greater incentive to do something for constituents who know where they live and with whom they may have once shared a beer”; that “inefficient and underfunded local police forces” aren’t as effective as national-level coercive organs; that crooks might even care to improve local living conditions where they also live; and that if power is decentralized, Kiev can’t be blamed for everything. While there is a certain element of practical common sense in these arguments, there’s also some naiveté – which Motyl acknowledges: the center is unlikely even consider any form of decentralization until crisis circumstances force their hand.

While Motyl directly addresses the sensitive topic of separatism, he ducks the no less sensitive issues of federalism and language. On separatism, he correctly notes that the prospects of separation of the east – and especially Crimea – are often overblown. First, he concludes (perhaps unfairly) that “no semi-rational Russian state would ever voluntarily annex a rust belt seething with anger and doomed to underdevelopment.” Secondly, and perhaps more definitively, eastern separatism has no place to go because of the PoR leadership itself, who know they would be eaten for lunch if their bailiwick ever did end up in a common state with Moscow.

Perhaps Motyl’s more interesting take on separatism is what he has to say about western Ukraine, while somehow managing to avoid mentioning Svoboda. With a perhaps biased assumption that the western region must be allowed the privilege of defining what it means to be Ukrainian, he suggests:

“Western Ukrainians, meanwhile, although they’re increasingly talking about their regional interests, are highly unlikely to separate from any political entity that bears some resemblance to their vision of Ukraine. Should the Yanukovych regime ever transform Ukraine into an anti-Ukrainian Little Russia, however, all bets would be off and secessionist tendencies in Ukraine’s west would certainly increase.”

As for federalism – a word that oddly appears nowhere in Motyl’s analysis – the question of a federal Ukraine as a mechanism for any future decentralization at least needs to be part of the discussion. Indeed, it has (“«Соединенные Штаты» Украины: за и против,” “«United States» of Ukraine, for and against,” Voice of America, 2012), not only from the east (“We have to build the system of federalism in Ukraine. There is no other alternative, 2010) but in the past from the west as well. It’s hard to believe that in 2002 -- not that long ago, after all -- a Lviv-based advocacy of Ukrainian federalism appeared in the Kyiv Post (“Ukraine should consider federalism,” May 23, 2002):

“The world has only about 20 federal states. But they contribute 80 percent of gross world production. Maybe Ukraine will be able to join this esteemed club some day. Especially if we understand federalism as something more than simple minded separatism or the creation of yet more administrative structures to replace Kyiv bureaucracy with an equally obnoxious product – the present day western Ukrainian bureaucracy. Rather it should involve delegating powers to the local and regional levels, introduce true self government, and a real division of powers between the branches of power.”

It seems, though, that federalism mostly has been useful as an accusation of separatist eastern intentions, such as “Our Ukraine’s” 2006 charge that PoR was promoting federalism as a separatist ploy.

Finally, Motyl overlooks (and perhaps wanted to avoid) the question of language, which one way or the other lurks under every discussion of Ukraine’s diversity. (The Lviv-based writer from 2002 denounces not only linguistic “Russification” but “surzhikization.”) At some point, the patent absurdity enshrined in Article 10 of Ukraine’s constitution that Russian is the language of a “national minority” needs to be addressed. If and when Ukraine decides to take a hard look at decentralization, or even federalism, the fact of Ukraine’s functional bilingualism needs to be given a more realistic legal framework that promotes unity, not disunity. One way to do that would be in the form of a national accord that defines the roles of Ukrainian and Russian as national languages, as well as truly minority languages like Romanian or Tatar, benefitting from the experience of other bilingual or multilingual countries.