Staunton, March 31 – Confronted with Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and its demands for the federalization of Ukraine, the Ukrainian foreign ministry has countered by calling for every republic within the Russian Federation to hold a referendum about their future status and possible independence.
Moscow has been pushing for the federalization of Ukraine for two reasons. On the one hand, federalization of Ukraine, given that predominantly ethnic Russian federal subjects would be adjacent to the Russian Federation, would give Moscow permanent leverage on Kyiv and prevent the integration of Ukrainian identity and the Ukrainian political system.
And on the other, the federalization of Ukraine is something Moscow feels it can use and expect to get support for both because it is a federation and because the United States not only is a federal system but has often pressed others to adopt federal arrangements as a means of sharing power with various groups and areas within a state.
But there are two problems with this Russian position: the Russian Federation is a federation in name only. There is no fiscal or legal federalism – Vladimir Putin has done everything he can to eliminate even the beginnings of either after 1991. And consequently, its push for “federalism for export” is suspect on its face.
And the other is that federal systems are both rare and difficult to create, a reality many in the US have been slow to recognize. At present, only about one country in ten has a federal system even nominally, and those that do have taken decades or longer to create the constitutional, legal and even more societal supports for power sharing on a territorial basis.
Without that foundation, as the Russian experience shows, every effort to build power locally looks to the center like the first step toward secession, and every effort to build power in the center looks to the periphery like another move toward return toward hyper-centralization, thus creating a situation which is unstable by its very nature.
As a counter to this Russian push to permanently injure their country by seizing part of it and making another part a place for continued Russian interference, the Ukrainian foreign ministry has called on the Russian Federation to live up to its own principles and even have referenda in its non-Russian republics about the future.
Before instructing others, the foreign ministry says, Russia should improve the situation in its own country with respect to national minorities, many of whom are sadly without the rights in fact that the Russian constitution specifies and that they as human communities have every right to demand.
“Why shouldn’t Russia give real and not declarative content to federalism” in its own country? the Ukrainian foreign ministry asks. Moreover, it continues, “why should [Russia] not conduct referenda about broad autonomy and if necessary about independence in the national subjects of the federation?”
At a minimum, Kyiv says, Moscow ought to think about giving languages other than Russian the status of state languages, a step it has demanded of Ukraine and other countries but has not been willing to take itself.
Given that and given the aggressive stance of Moscow toward Ukraine more generally, it is obvious that “this aggressor is demanding only one thing: the complete capitulation of Ukraine, its division, and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood. Namely in that way and in no other” are Russia’s demands evaluated in Ukraine.
Russia, of course, has a long history of making demands on others that it is in no way ready to fulfill for its own people. But even though the Ukrainian counter-suggestion is not going to find support in Moscow or – one fears – in the West, it does have the effect of highlighting the duplicity of the Kremlin and the problems Moscow itself faces.
There are 21 non-Russian national republics inside the borders of the Russian Federation. They are increasingly non-Russian given Russian flight and non-Russian fertility rates. Many have all the conditions necessary for independence, save having been made union republics in Soviet times, the precondition the West decided was the limit of self-determination in 1991.
Some in the Caucasus have already taken up arms to press for independence, Chechnya being only the most dramatic in that regard. Others like Tatarstan, which like Chechnya refused to sign the Russian Federation treaty, have large groups within their populations who want independence. And still others want at least a re-division of power and fiscal arrangements in their favor.
Moreover – and this is especially important now – many non-Russians in these republics are horrified and angry about the increasingly xenophobic ideology of the Kremlin, an ideology that both puts them at risk of attacks by Russian groups and leaves them as second-class citizens in what has been their own country.
Indeed, at the present time, the suggestion of the Ukrainian foreign ministry about what should happen in the Russian Federation deserves the support of all those who favor freedom and a law-based state; the demands of the Russian Federation in contrast are, given their obvious motivation, unworthy of any discussion whatsoever.