Ukraine: decentralisation and political reform

An increasingly pressing question amid the turmoil in Ukraine is whether some form of devolved governance can suffice to stabilise the country. The issue will be central to the post-election dialogue on Ukraine’s future.

The line taken by the West and Kiev is that decentralisation is much needed, while Russia touts federalisation as a solution. Many in Ukraine and within Western governments fear that federalisation would portend a dismantling of the state and paralysis of national-level decision-making.

The negative conclusion is that this decentralisation-versus-federalisation debate represents another impasse between different Ukrainian factions and between the West and Russia. A more positive hope is that there might be points of compromise or sufficient commonality between the two concepts to win assent from both sides of the conflict—even if most acknowledge this looks unlikely amid the current wave of separatist activism.

In fact, neither decentralisation nor federalisation is an inherently good option, and neither is intrinsically bad. Ukraine’s stabilisation does not hinge on the precise definitional dividing line between these two concepts. More important is whether a political culture will take root that gives priority to fostering inclusive and balanced decision-making.

The dangers of federalisation in Ukraine flow from the Russian tactics it might enable, rather than from the concept itself. The core principle of federalisation is to accord subnational units constitutionally enshrined rights of shared sovereignty, not to guarantee a particular level of political influence over the central state. There are federations that are relatively centralised and others that are relatively decentralised.

Russia sees Ukraine’s federalisation as a means of ensuring its “neutrality.” But federations leave foreign, security, and trade policy in the hands of the central government. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of Ukraine’s Eastern regions being able to pursue their own foreign policy alliances would require the country to become a confederal, not a federal, state.

Moreover, whether Eastern and Southern regions could paralyse decision-making would depend on the precise powers given to the (territorially based) senate. Federations in fact exhibit a wide variety in such arrangements.

Moscow’s demand in Ukraine seems to be less for federalism per se than for power-sharing quotas. Comparisons with other federal systems do not bode well in this regard. The Bosnian model is not auspicious: the Dayton Accords did help quell violent, open conflict in the Western Balkan state, but they have also prevented the embedding of national-level institutions.

Assuaging Russian speakers in Ukraine’s East is not quite the same thing as advocating full-scale federalisation of the whole state. The Scottish model is often referred to, but this gives special devolved governance arrangements to Scotland within a classical unitary state.

Polls suggest people in Russian-speaking areas are concerned about minority rights but do not seek an unraveling of the Ukrainian state. As Ukraine’s subnational units are all extremely heterogeneous, a Belgian model of linguistic duality would hardly be feasible in practice. Federalisation is one thing, selective or asymmetric decentralisation is another.

Of course, many doubt whether Moscow really has a coherent and genuine plan for an effective federal state or simply advocates this principle as a Trojan horse for destabilisation. Good local politics would create more space for moderate pro-Ukraine citizens. Does autocratic Russia really want this kind of vibrant local democracy in Ukraine?

In short, precision is needed over what is actually being debated. While political scientists have long struggled to draw a clear line between decentralisation and federalisation, one clear lesson emerges from transition experiences: either route to devolved governance must be accompanied by democracy building that transcends ethnic and linguistic divisions.

Academic studies show that decentralisation can enable reform spoilers to complicate democratic change. Decentralisation has been on the agenda for many years in Ukraine and has invariably taken forms that embed corrupt patronage networks—a temptation to which the current interim government has also not been entirely immune.

In many countries, decentralisation has fuelled unsatiated demands for full independence. Both decentralisation and federalisation contain the prospect of entrenching internal differences even in the absence of any Russian actions.

The crucial variable is how the broader political context is handled. The imperative is to combine mechanisms of self-rule with those of shared rule—to recognise but not rigidify local differences. Strong national-level parties and civic bodies are needed to transcend regional-ethnic-linguistic divisions and complement decentralisation.

In the future, Ukraine might conform to a model of “democratisation by default”: a situation where diversity simply makes it impossible for would-be authoritarian projects to put down deep roots. But decentralisation cannot in itself be expected to hold a state together in the absence of national democratic identity building. It is not clear that Ukraine’s prospective national dialogue is being framed with such lessons in mind.

Richard Youngs
Dr Richard Youngs (@YoungsRichard) is an Associate Professor of International and European Politics at Warwick. He obtained his BA (Hons) at Cambridge University, and his MA and PhD from Warwick University. He has held positions as analyst at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; research fellow to an EU project on democracy promotion; and from 2001-2004, EU Marie Curie Fellow, based at the Norwegian Institute for International Relations in Oslo.

Youngs is a Senior Associate for Carnegie Europe.

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