ISSUE 3-2014
Mykola Riabchuk Oleksandra Betliy  & Vitaliy Kravchuk Vugar Bayramov
Игорь Тышкевич
Mykola Riabchuk
Мария Русакова
Эльхан Шахиноглу

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Mykola Riabchuk | Reasercher, Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Ukraine | Issue 3, 2014

To paraphrase the 19th-century Karl Marx’ dictum, a “specter is haunting Ukraine — the specter of federalism”. For some, a profound federalization of the country is the only remedy for its current domestic troubles. For others, it is a poison disguised as a medicine that would only bring about the complete collapse of the country and its partial or total absorption by Russia. The bitter irony of the situation is that both sides seem to hold truth.

The talks on federalization are much older than Ukraine itself. Virtually all the founding fathers of the Ukrainian nation made some overtures to the idea [1]  – starting from the mid-19th century poet Taras Shevchenko and his clandestine SS. Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood to the turn of the century historians Mykhaylo Drahomanov and Mykhaylo Hrushevsky to the late 20th century leader of the anti-communist opposition Vyacheslav Chornovil.[2]  All of them, however, expressed their views in a fundamentally different context. Ukraine was not a sovereign state at the time but rather an inseparable part of the empire. Any federalization of, or within, the empire meant for them a right step toward national emancipation and greater sovereignty.

Besides these, rather ambiguous, historical arguments, supporters of federalization refer also to significant cultural differences between the regions that result from their extensive, centuries-long belonging to different political organisms. Indeed, it was only in the 20th-century when the Bolsheviks patched most of the ethnic Ukrainian lands together. They failed, however, to eradicate their different political, cultural, and religious traditions through forcible Sovietization. The two ensuing decades of national independence have also failed to bring Ukraine’s versatile territories any closer. In a representative 2006 nationwide survey, the respondents in all but western Ukrainian regions declared they felt themselves in cultural and psychological terms («захарактером, звичаями, традиціями») closer to Russians than to western Ukrainians. In the south and east, not only Russians but also Belarusians were perceived as being closer to “us” than west Ukrainians or even, in some cases, the inhabitants of Kyiv and central Ukraine.[3]

With dysfunctional institutions, weak rule of law and low national cohesion, federalization may rather accelerate centrifugal tendencies than mitigate interregional tensions and dispel mutual biases. In a comprehensive analysis of the Polish administrative reform and its applicability for Ukraine, Hennady Poberezhny expresses reasonable reservations: “Like Poland, Ukraine has historically distinct regions and regionalisms, but unlike Poland, it has not managed to achieve a relatively high degree of national consolidation where regional and national identities are complementary rather than competing ones. Also, unlike Poland, where regionalism has a predominantly socio-economic dimension, Ukraine’s regionalism is heavily vested in substantial cultural differences on top of the socio-economic ones; these cleavages have had clear political manifestation in the series of consecutive national elections with the voters’ preferences persistently expressed to a larger extent along cultural divisions rather than along ideological ones. The lack of a strong national identity and the (although not universal) presence of relatively strong regional identities made it a rather risky proposition to proceed with the decentralization reforms, despite the initial intention to quickly reform the inherited Soviet postcolonial highly centralized administrative system”.[4]

This largely explains why all the Ukrainian governments have been very reluctant to change a highly inefficient hypercentralized Soviet system. The national democrats that had been mostly in opposition did not press hard for the administrative reform because felt that in absence of functional institutions and viable cultural bonds any devolution of central power may put their nascent state in jeopardy, and that some regions may fell a prey of the rapacious neighbor or local chieftains or both. Federalism was perceived as a particular danger, and its promotion was discursively equalized with state treason, while its supporters disparaged occasionally as “federasts”.[5]

The ruling postcommunists have been more ambivalent about federalism in their rhetorics – mostly because the idea was not so alien to their electorate in the south east and even less so to their patrons in Moscow. On the eve of elections, they even flirted opportunistically with the idea but have never tried to implement it – for the obvious reason. It is not in the nature of authoritarian regimes to promote any devolution of power which would inevitably deprive them from uncontrolled (mis)appropriation of financial and administrative resources.[6]  As a result, for more than two decades in Ukraine the idea of federalization has remained mostly a bargaining chip for disgruntled local elites in their negotiations with Kyiv to acquire some personal gains and concessions.

To the credit of the orange government (2005-2009), they at least understood the need of decentralisation and, shortly after assumed the power, offered a comprehensive administrative reform aimed at a more efficient use of public resources and a better quality of public services.[7]  A few months later, however, the government fell collateral of the suicidal internecine fighting within the orange camp that postponed all the much-needed Ukrainian reforms at least for another decade.

Today, Realpolitik provides a powerful argument to the supporters of federalization – a kind of the proverbial brick offered by a stranger to buy in a dark street. Federalization seems to be a major demand of the both pro-Russian militants who took over a good dozen of east Ukrainian cities, and of their Moscow patrons who has openly intervened in Ukraine. In such a lose-lose situation, the Ukrainian government may be tempted to accept a bad peace instead of a good war that it cannot win against Russia anyway.

There are two serious obstacles yet to materialize the idea. First, the very notion of federalization is highly unpopular in Ukrainian society and is broadly perceived not as a mere capitulation to the external pressure but essentially as a betrayal of the Maidan revolution and of the national cause in general. Remarkably, it is not only staunch Ukrainian nationalists who reject the idea but the population at large – as opinion surveys, including the recent one, graphically reveal.[8] Contrary to what Russian and pro-Russian politicians claim, the idea of federalization draws support of only 26% of respondents in the east of Ukraine and 22% in the south (without Crimea), whereas in the west and the center, it is supported by meager 3 and 7 per cent respectively.

The highest figures are recorded predictably in the Donetsk (38%) and Luhansk (42%) regions – but even here the supporters of federalization make up a plurality but not a majority of population.[9]  The same survey (April 10-15) indicates that 19% of respondents in the south east (including 12% in Donbas) support today’s status quo, whereas 45% (including 41% in Donetsk and 34% in Luhansk) stay for a unitary state with some decentralization and giving more power to the regions. Despite Russian unprecedented military, economic and propagandistic pressure, only 12% of respondents in the south east list federalization as an important step that should be undertaken by the government to secure the national unity. Many more – 38% – prioritize the need for disarmament and dissolution of various paramilitaries, and 22% suggest the government to offer the south-eastern region a clear economic perspective.

The second reason that makes the idea of federalization of Ukraine unviable is a broad recognition that whatever the Ukrainian government does to appease the Kremlin and its regional clients, they would never be satisfied. Russia, as Ivan Krastev aptly notes, “envisions Ukraine becoming something akin to Bosnia – a radically federalized country comprising political units that each adhere to their own economic, cultural, and geopolitical preferences. In other words, while Ukraine’s territorial integrity would technically be preserved, the eastern part of the country would have closer ties with Russia than with the rest of Ukraine – similar to the relationship between Bosnia’s Republika Srpska and Serbia. This creates a dilemma for Europe. While radical federalization could allow Ukraine to remain intact through the current crisis, it would most likely doom the country to disintegration and failure in the longer term. As Yugoslavia’s experience demonstrated, radical decentralization works in theory but does not always work in practice”.[10]

Andy Hunder, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, recognizes that Kyiv has quite a good reason to fear that federalization –something that is the norm in countries like Germany and the United States– would fatally weaken the Ukrainian state due to Russian meddling: "Federalization has really been the game plan of the Kremlin. That would not allow, or would derail, any attempt by the Kyiv government to move the country closer to any European integration or potentially even any military bloc or alliances".[11]

Russian officials leave little doubt about the type of “federalization” they mastermind for Ukraine. “В рамках жесткого унитарного государства будет идти постоянное противостояние [Sergey Glazyev, Putin's adviser avers]. Чтобы его прекратить, нужна федерализация. Нужно дать регионам достаточно прав, возможность самостоятельно формировать свои бюджеты и даже возможность частичного внешнеполитического самоопределения. В мировой практике есть такие примеры, хотя они и выглядят странно с точки зрения международного права, когда в рамках одной страны действуют разные торгово-экономические режимы. Например, в составе Дании есть Гренландия, при этом Дания является частью Евросоюза, а Гренландия — нет. Так что этоздравое предложение для Украины”.[12]

The pro-government experts are even more barefaced. “There should be two Ukraines”, contends one of them, “and this would be good for Ukraine itself”.[13]“   In the meantime”, the other expert elaborates, “the sides can agree on the federalization of Ukraine, but it would be only a step toward a rightful partition”.[14]

Of a particular interest is a text by Maksim Kalashnikov, published as early as January 2014, that is before Yanukovych's fall and Russian invasion, but bearing all the conspicuous features of self-fulfilling prophecy:

One of them, a former journalist and fledgeling political activist Maksim Kalashnikov,[15]  outlined Kremlin's prospective policy vis-a-vis Ukraine with a stunning precision as early as January 2014 – a month before Yanukovych's fall and eventual Russian invasion in the Crimea and Donbas: Украину можно уберечь от гражданской войны только быстрым разделом (под маркой федерализации)… Что должен сделать Янукович? К чему его принудить? Первое – объявить о референдуме по двум вопросам: о вступлении Украины в ассоциацию с ЕС и о федерализации Украины. О создании четырех республик: Донецко-Новороссийской (включающей автономный Крым), Центрально-Украинской, Западноукраинской и Подкарпатской Руси... Москва должна поддержать этот процесс информационно, финансово… и, выразимся так, спецсредствами. Донбасс и Новороссия – это в основном русские, это наш народ, и мы его обязаны защищать. В Донбассе и Новороссии (Крым и Причерноморье) должны быть созданы (по образцу Приднестровья 1990-1992 гг.) отряды самообороны с оружием. Должна начаться «приватизация» стоящих там частей внутренних войск и украинских Вооруженных сил... Освободившиеся места должны занять добровольцы из местного населения. Москва должна негласно снабжать эти части оружием и боеприпасами. Задача этих частей – перекрыть мосты через Днепр, прикрыть опасные сухопутные рубежи на севере Одесской, Николаевской и Днепропетровской областей... Чтобы как можно дольше удерживать правительственные резиденции в Киеве, нужно ввести туда вооруженных добровольцев из Донбасса и Новороссии. Среди них легко скрыть инструкторов и бойцов (добровольцев) из РФ. Сбор таких волонтеров – вопрос технический... Сейчас для этого нужно «строить» донбасских толстосумов, запугивать их, заставлять раскошеливаться. Гарантировать (в личных переговорах) Януковичу убежище в РФ и полную защиту. Используя телерадиосилы и Интернет РФ, муссировать то, что дело идет о защите русского и прорусского населения Донбасса и Новороссии от нашествия озверелых и невменяемых бандеровцев, от хаоса и насилия. С местными олигархами и Януковичем разберемся потом... Проведение референдума (даже если он пройдет только в Донбассе и Новороссии, на юго-востоке) даст все законные основания на их отложение и отход власти из Киева в Харьков”.[16]

What in January looked as a delirious fantasy of a radical nationalist, two months later has largely become the core of Putin's Realpolitik. Even though the early departure of Viktor Yanukovych has partly distorted the plan, the new government in Kyiv still is forced, by hooks and crooks, to accept the dismemberment of the country “under the guise of federalization” (под маркой федерализации) – as the expert has candidly put it. Kyiv is very unlikely to accept it, and would rather promote the idea of much-needed decentralization, which basically coincides with the EU-supported principle of subsidiarity. The only legitimate way to achieve this is to hold parliamentary and local elections, and then to negotiate the division of power and responsibility between the center and regions at the level of both national and regional legislatures.

Kyiv staunchly (and rather reasonably) oppose any talks on the matter with Russia and pro-Russian militants in Donbas, even though this is exactly what Moscow wants and what would promote by all possible means, rightly considering this as the only way to thrust its “federalization” agenda upon Kyiv. Kremlin is rather aware that any normal electoral process in Ukraine would result in defeat of the radical pro-Russian forces, and therefore does its best to sabotage and derail any normalization.

According to the April 8-16 opinion survey, carried out in eight south eastern regions (Putin's “Novorossiya”), only 12% of respondents support or “rather support” a takeover of government buildings in their region by armed men while 77% oppose it.[17] In the same survey, 15% support hypothetical secession of their region and joining Russia but 70% oppose it; 32% find Russian interference into Ukrainian affairs legitimate but 54% disagree with it; 12% support a possible Russian military invasion in Ukraine but 74% oppose it; in case of such an invasion 7% would greet Russian troops and 2% may even join them but 47% would rather stay at home whereas 21% declare their will to fight Russians with arms.

The breakdown of the data reveals also significant difference between the regions that have been traditionally placed under the same overarching rubric “south east”. Donbas clearly stands on the pro-Russian (or, rather, Sovietophile, Pan-Slavonic, anti-Western and anti-Kyiv) pole, whereas Tavria (Kherson and Mykolaiv oblasts) alongside with Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk represent the opposite pole, with popular attitudes much closer to the moderate Central Ukraine than proverbial “south east”. For example, in these four oblasts only 3-9% of respondents support takeover of government buildings by armed men, while in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts the approval reaches 24 and 18 per cent respectively. Secession in the four central-southern oblasts (plus Odesa) is supported only by 3-7 per cent – contrary to 28-30% in Donbas. Only 14-20% of respondents find Russian interference into Ukraines’ affairs legitimate – contrary to 49% in Donetsk and 41% in Luhansk. Only 4-7% of respondents in the four central-southern oblasts (plus Odesa) support hypothetical invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine – contrary to 19% in Donbas. Only 2-5% of respondents in central-southern regions would greet Russian troops while 26-37% would like to fight them with arms. In contrast to this, Donbas is the only region where the number of respondents who would greet Russian army (14-16%) is higher than the number of those who intend to fight them (11-12%). And, as a recent survey reveals, it is only Donbas where Vladimir Putin still enjoys a high rating of popularity (66%) – in contrast to all other regions of Ukraine where his popularity nosedived in a year to minus 90% in the west and center, and 70% in the south and east.[18]

Sociologically, the Kharkiv oblast and, in some cases, the Odesa oblast are located between those two poles. One of them can be defined as basically pro-Ukrainian and, to a various degree, pro-European. The other one is largely Soviet, partly pro-Russian but first and foremost confused and ambivalent. In either case, the support for a Russian invasion and/or joining Russia is lukewarm and nowhere, including Donbas, draws on majority or even plurality of population. This largely explains Putin’s failure to instigate the “poplar uprising” in all these regions against the “fascist Ukrainian government”. Too long these regions have been presented in Russian media as genuinely Russian, and their population as dreaming primordially about reunification with mother-Russia. It is difficult to estimate to which degree Putin and his associates fell victims their own propaganda, but they are undoubtedly misled, like most Russians, by the old Russian myth about Ukrainians as “almost the same people” as Russians (especially when Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language – more or less like Irish speak primarily English). Too many advisers probably tried to persuade Putin that “Novorossiya” is ready for grab: “just bring a spark here–and everything would get ablaze”, as Julia Latynina quipped. Yet, she continues, “they brought a spark– and nothing happened. A lot of smoke, of fumes– but no fire”.[19]

It appeared that a few dozen mercenaries with Russian instructors could mobilize a few hundred local enthusiasts of both ideological and criminal background, and lead them to occupy the government buildings in some Donbas towns and cities. But it is still a far cry from a popular revolution or even rebellion. Most people in Donbas are sitting on the fence ready to accept the winner whoever it would be, as long as he brings some stability and hope for a better life. It is rather clear that without the regular Russian army no takeover of the south east by Russia-armed paramilitaries is possible, and even in the Donbas it is increasingly problematic as the local population gets tired with the mess and redirect gradually its anger from mythical “fascists” in Kyiv to quite real chieftains nearby. The Ukrainian government may win some support of the local elites if it offers them a comprehensive package of decentralization reforms and enhanced self-rule. It may also contain the paramilitaries in their nests and eventually eliminate them if succeeds to radically reform the obsolete post-Soviet army, police, and security service, and establish a real, reliable control of the Russian-Ukrainian border, which so far is an open gateway for both Russian mercenaries and heavy weapon.

Still, even in the best-case scenario, the reconciliation between “two Ukraines” – the pro-Western and anti-Western, Sovietophile and anti-Soviet, paternalistic and civic, concerned primarily with survival and concerned with self-realization – would not be easy. Vitaly Nakhmanovych, a Ukrainian historian and Jewish-Ukrainian activist, argues that the reconciliation is rather impossible because the underlying values for both groups are incompatible and cannot be quickly changed – if changed at all. Instead, he contends, Ukrainian politicians should think about accommodation. It might be possible if one group manages to guarantee some autonomy for the other group, with due respect to its values. It is very unlikely that authoritarian Ukraine can provide such autonomy for democratically minded, Europe-oriented citizens. But it is quite possible that democratic Ukraine would find a way to accommodate its paternalistic, Sovietophile, and Russia-oriented fellow countrymen.[20]    This is actually what both Latvia and Estonia have rather successfully done for their Sovietophile/Pan-Slavonic co-citizens.

In any case, it is very unlikely that the Kremlin would ever stop its subversive activities. With a huge network of agents in all Ukrainian institutions and significant support of the Russiphile/Sovietophile part of the population, Moscow can derail Ukrainian reforms and successful Europeanization even without direct military invasion. Even though the invasion cannot be excluded, it is rather unlikely due to its very high internal and international costs and rather questionable benefits. Russia could have easily taken Donbas after a bogus “referendum” carried out in May. But Donbas has little symbolical value for Russia and even less practical sense – with all its outdated 19th-century industry. Putin's main problem is actually not independent Ukraine per se but a successfully modernized, democratic and European Ukraine where millions of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainian (“almost Russians”, in Putin's parlance) enjoy much more freedom and civic liberties than their brethren in Russia. This might be a deadly blow for the Putinism as a system built upon the megalomaniac claim of pan-Slavonic uniqueness and paranoid anti-Westernism.[21]

So, the Kremlin would probably continue all sorts of pressure and provocations in order to keep Ukraine in a limbo of “neither peace nor war”, to prevent any serious international investments in the country, and to prove it is a failed state – as was actually claimed by Moscow for years, in a way of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a powerful challenge for the Ukrainian elite and population at large but also a great stimulus and perhaps the last opportunity to finally come to terms with civic maturity, national consolidation, and much-needed institutional reforms. 

[2] Вячеслав Чорновіл, Моя виборча програма, Політика, 1989, №1 (жовтень), c. 2–3.
[3] Спільна ідентичність громадян України: особливості і проблеми становлення,
Національна безпека і оборона, 2006, №7, с. 12;
[4] ГеннадійПобережний, Децентралізаціяякзасібвідсепаратизму, Критика, 2006, №11, c. 3-7,
[6] Побережний, ibid.
[7] Елена Злобина, Как чиновники собираются делить Украину? Деньги-плюс, 18 мая2005; php?aid=1002 
[10] Ivan Krastev, Putin’s World, Tr@nsit, 1 April 2014; watch/transit-online/putins-world/
[11] Charles Recknagel, What Are Eastern Ukraine's (Legitimate) Grievances With Kyiv? REFE/REL Newsline, 29 May 2014; greievances/25402922.html
 [12] Сергей Глазьев: федерализация — уже не идея, а очевидная необходимость, Коммерсантъ Украина, 06.02.2014; 
[13] Сергей Рыдз, Как нам обустроить Украину,, 2 июня2003;
[14] Петр Акопов,Как вернуть Киев, Взгляд,  23 января 2014,
[18] Ностальгія за СРСР та ставлення до окремих постатей, Соціологічна група «Рейтинґ», 5 травня 2014
[20] Віталій Нахманович, Вiдкрите звернення до лідерів Майдану, Критика, січень 2014, 
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