Staunton, May 17 – Many arguments about Ukraine have become a battle of analogies where advocates of various outcomes do so less by talking about what conditions are actually like in that country than by suggesting analogies with countries which also have significant regional tensions.
One such case is an exchange between two commentators who are usually on the same side when it comes to regionalism and its management in the Russian Federation but now find themselves on opposite sides concerning Ukraine, with one suggesting that Donetsk is like Catalonia in Spain and the other argument that that Ukrainian region is in fact like Ulster.
Vadim Shteppa led off this debate with an article in Izvestiya this week entitled “Democrats against Democracy” in which he outlined the plusses of a federal system for Ukraine, the shortcomings of the Ukrainian government, and the way in which Catalonia can serve as a model for dealing with Donetsk and other regions
The Russian regionalist says that there is no basis for concluding that the Maidan reflected the views “of the entire people of Ukraine” especially given that in overturning the earlier government, it did not so much install its own leaders as allow the rise of representatves of the opposition party nomenklaturas.”
The Kyiv government and its supporters, he says, view the May 25 presidential elections as a solution to their problems, as an act that will “return the country to complete legitimacy.” But in making that assumption, they are not taking into consider “the main thing: after February the civic consciousness of Ukraine,” especially in the regions, “already has essentially changed.”
Ukrainian leaders define their task as the Europeanization of their country, Shteppa says, but they ignore an important aspect of European reality: “Contemporary Europe is experiencing an active outburst of regional movements which are demanding the reformatting of the EU in order that local interests will be taken into account.”
To the extent that Kyiv leaders reject something similar for Ukraine, any new president will soon be “only ‘a new Yanukovich,’” the leader the Maidan organized against and successfully ousted.
After the loss of Crimea, Ukrainian leaders began to talk more about the regions, but they have not been very specific about what they would do, a problem given that existing Ukrainian law largely precludes giving the regions more autonomy and authority.
That makes the refusal of the Verkhova Rada to hold at the same time as the presidential elections “an all-national consultative vote on the state structure of Ukraine, Shteppa says, even if that did not have the status of a referendum and even if it was cast in the most general language about support for “a unitary and European state with broad powers” for the regions.
According to Shteppa, the current Ukrainian situation resembles “a strange remake of Russian history of the early 1990s,” when “many politicians who called themselves ‘democrats loudly called for the dissolution of the democratically elected Supreme Soviet,” an action that set that country on an entirely different path than the one they proclaimed.
Formally, the Verkhovna Rada is on the opposite side in that conflict, “but in essence it is in a similar situation. These ‘democrats’ in principle do not want to listen to the point of view of the majority of the population of their country. What kind of ‘triumph of democracy’ can one speak of given that?”
Shteppa suggests that a real referendum in Ukraine might offer a choice between support “for the transformation of Ukraine into a federal state where the governor of each region is elected by its population and its legislation is written by the local rada [council]” or backing for “the reservation of the unitary system of administration in which governors are appointed by the president and tax and language policies are set only by the central authorities.”
In the view of the Russian regionalist, support for the first would come “not only in Donetsk but in Lviv” as well. But Ukrainians won’t find out because “the current Kyiv authorities are simply in a panic and afraid of federalism,” which they “immediately associate with ‘the collapse of the country.’”
The Ukrainian leaders ignore the fact that federal systems in the US and Germany are strong and that neither threatens the territorial integrity of the country. “The real collapse of Ukraine could occur only as a result of unitary centralism, which ignores the varied regional characteristics of this country,” Shteppa says.
As long as the Ukrainian authorities “do not want to listen to the voices of the regions, they should not be surprised that ‘self-organized’ referenda will be conducted in the latter.” Such a pattern is completely within the European tradition: In November, Catalonia will hold a referendum on independence, “despite Madrid’s ‘ban’” on that.
Shteppa’s argument was challenged yesterday by his friend Aleksey Shiropayev in an article on Rufabula.com. Shiropayev, who is also a committed regionalist, said he found Shteppa’s article “strange” because the author treated Ukrainian democracy as something not yet in existence and drew the wrong analogies.
Shiropayev takes particular exception to Shteppa’s analogy between Donetsk and Catalonia. The situations of the two are fundamentally different. There are no ‘foreign diversionists and terrorists” in Catalonia, but there are in Donetsk. And there are no “’little green men’” in the former, although they are all too prominent in the latter.
Europeans see the difference even if Shteppa doesn’t. They see “in the events in the south-east a form of the carrying out of an imperial war against Ukraine.” Telling them that Donetsk is just like Catalonia would be likely to generate a reaction very different from the one he expects.
Catalonia, Shiropayev continues, despite its drive toward independence, “does not think of itself outside of the European Union. European integration in fact would be the strategic direction of the development of Catalonia after the acquisition of independence.” The Donetsk and Luhansk activists are moving “in a completely opposite direction geographically and civilizationally.”
Donetsk and Luhansk “are demonstrating not a Europaen but a Eurasian horde trend.” As such, they are a Soviet-style “parody on Catalonia,” in which they promote “a regional brand” by speaking in front of statues to Lenin, carrying red flags, and singing the Soviet and not even the Russian hymn.
These two regions are not seeking “genuine independence.” They want that only as “an intermediate step on the path to Russia which they consider to be the historical continuation of the USSR.” That is captured in their slogan: “’We are for federationalization to [sic] Russia.” What they want is not federalism or regionalism or even separatism.
Instead, what is going on there is the actions of “a movement which serves the imperial interests of the Kremlin.” It is more than a little strange, he says, that Shteppa doesn’t see this reality.
Another issue altogether is whether Ukraine might be better off without Donetsk and Luhansk, without “the ballast” that these constitute on “the balloon of a European Ukraine. Such questions are being asked more often given “the soviet mentality, the love for portraits of Stalin and monuments to Lenin, the hatred to Ukraine as such … and the criminal situation” in these two regions.
Shiropayev points out that “the Donbas and the Luhansk area always will be problematic regions, a kind of Soviet Ulster which will threaten the very existence of Ukraine.” That is not the kind of “European trend” that Ukrainians want to be a part of. And before Ukraine can move forward, it must restore order in those two territories not make promises about referenda.