Is Partition a Good Idea for Ukraine?

January 30, 2014
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

If Ukraine’s leaders -- whether in the government or the opposition -- have the nation’s best interests at heart, they will strive to preserve its unity and sovereignty. The horrors of civil war must be avoided at all costs.

Some commentators and bloggers suggest partition as an alternative. It would certainly be preferable, but it contains it own challenges.

Partitions can be messy affairs resulting in violence and population transfers (India and Pakistan in 1947, East and West Pakistan in 1971, and South Sudan currently.) But they can also proceed peacefully. Czechoslovakia is a sterling example. It broke up uneventfully, and seemingly without rancor. Hence the moniker the Velvet Divorce.

One of the reasons it worked out as well as it did is that the country had two ethnic regions each constituting roughly half of its land mass, and each with its own capital city – Prague for Bohemia and Moravia, and Bratislava for Slovakia.

Another reason is that public opinion was never consulted. No referenda were ever held either in the Czech lands, or in Slovakia, or in Czechoslovakia as a whole. Partition came about through an agreement of the political elite. In that sense, the undoing of the ČSSR resembled the break-up of the USSR.

This is ironic. The two states could hardly have been more different: the ČSSR was small, neatly divided ethnically, geographically contained in central Europe, sharing a common history of domination by the same power -- Austria-Hungary and later Nazi Germany, religiously and linguistically close, harboring no grand international ambitions, but both orientated towards the EU and NATO; the Soviet Union, by contrast, was everything the ČSSR was not.

Nevertheless, both managed to ditch the Communist party and its leading role, and dissolve into relatively stable and coherent successor states that are still with us decades later.

Just as partition was worked out by the ČSSR’s elite class, so the break up of the USSR came about through an agreement of the heads of the country’s most important republics – the RFSFR, the Byelorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR. No significant political movement in any of these republics was demanding independence. Yeltsin knew he wanted to get rid of Gorbachev, and the only way he could do it was to abolish the USSR out from under him. This left Yeltsin in sole charge of what became the Russian Federation. It also resulted in contemporary Belarus and Ukraine.

Thus, paradoxically in view of the vast differences between the USSR and the ČSSR, the Soviet Union (the European part of it, at any rate) also divorced amicably. This process was aided and abetted by some real affinities of the three republics – majority Slavic ethnicity, majority Orthodox religion, shared historical experiences, etc. This does not mean the collapse of the USSR did not proceed without serious problems. The break-up of the country in Central Asia and the Caucasus took place amidst much blood-letting and population transfers.

But, contrary to most expectations, the three heartland Slavic republics managed to part company with relatively little muss or fuss.

Could Ukraine do the same? West Ukraine is "orange" and East Ukraine is "blue" which would seem to augur well for a neat division. But what about the large central part which contains Kiev and which is a mixture of orange and blue, capable of going either way?

And what to do about Ukraine's status as a great power proxy, the prize in a tug of war between East and West - a factor which did not come into play in the ČSSR or the USSR?

Successful partition requires astute political leadership if the disastrous Yugoslav experience of the 1990s is to be avoided.

In the prelude to the Balkan War, outside powers insisted that Republics and Autonomous Provinces – even in their arbitrary Tito-era boundaries -- possessed the right of self-determination. Thus, Germany and Austria supported Slovenian and Croatian separatism, and the U.S. took up the Muslim cause in Bosnia and Kosovo. Unfortunately, these republics and provinces did not correspond well to the settlement patterns of the real, flesh-and-blood nations: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, etc. In particular, a break-up along Republic lines left a hefty portion of the Serbs, who were Yugoslavia’s largest nation, as minorities under unfriendly rulers. Hostilities were bound to break out, and they did, raging on for years.

A Yugoslav scenario is unlikely to play out in Ukraine, which lacks supposedly “sovereign” sub-jurisdictions. However, in the event of a general breakdown of the constitutional order in Ukraine, it is not impossible that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea would assert a right to self-determination on the basis of its unique autonomous status and its previous rights as an ASSR in Soviet Ukraine, and before 1954 as part of the RSFSR. Conversely, while majority-Catholic oblasts of western Ukraine do not have a legal status comparable to Crimea, their unique ethno-religious composition could point to the creation of a “Svobodaland” scenario.

All avenues out of Ukraine’s crisis are fraught with danger. There are no easy answers. If partition is the only alternative to civil war, it is a risk that might be worth running, but the leadership virtues of prudence, justice and magnanimity will be required.