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Self-rule in Ukraine

There is no agreement about what ‘self-rule’ means for parts of Ukraine. Moreover, even if federalism is not a first step to the disintegration of Ukraine, neither is it a ‘magic solution.’

René Wadlow
22 May 2014

On the eve of the election for President in Ukraine, the heated tensions among factions within the country and between the Russian Federation, the European Union (EU) and the USA seem to be cooling. Talk of a new 'Cold War,' of economic sanctions, of Russian or NATO imperialism is lessening.  More rational discussion on the structures of the Ukrainian state and its relations with other countries now seems possible.

Ukraine faces real internal problems: political, economic and social. There is a need for dialogue, trust building, and reconciliation within the country − all stepping stones to stable internal peace. The earlier situation in Ukraine did not lend itself to calm considerations of compromise.

In a 15 April report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had warned that, ‘misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered in Ukraine to avoid further escalation of tensions in the country... It is critical for the government to prioritise respect for diversity, inclusivity and equal participation of all − including minorities in Ukraine.’

The earlier situation in Ukraine did not lend itself to calm considerations of compromise.

One possibility of lowering tensions on a longer-term basis is to start serious discussions on a federal, decentralised government structure that would not divide the country but would foster local and regional autonomy. The Association of World Citizens, who have a long history of reflection on federalist approaches as elements of conflict resolution, have warned against simplified concepts in the discussions about Ukraine’s future. Federalism is not a first step to the disintegration of Ukraine, but neither is it a ‘magic solution.’ 

Separatist factions in Eastern Ukraine decided to hold a referendum on Sunday 11 May in a hastily organised way, with little if any public debate on the consequences of the referendum, and strong pressure exerted on the local population to vote ‘yes’ on the only option presented. The central government, the EU and the US have all indicated that they considered the referendum and its results as not valid − in fact, illegal. President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation had unexpectedly suggested on the eve of the referendum that it be postponed or not held. However, after the referendum, the Russian government indicated that the referendum showed the ‘will of the people,’ and that Russia would abide by the results.

The referendum was organised in only a part of Eastern Ukraine, in what is newly proclaimed as the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic. The question asked was a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the Russian word samostoyatelnost, which can be translated as ‘self rule.’  Since there had been no real public discussion, the term could mean − and did mean − different things to different people − everything from greater autonomy within the existing constitution of Ukraine but with a greater recognition of Russian language and culture; autonomy within a to-be-created new Ukrainian federation; an independent state along the lines of Abkhazia, formerly part of neighbouring Georgia; or a willingness to join the Russian Federation on the model of Crimea. People were discouraged from voting ‘no,’ and few did.


With the lowering of tensions, the options of creating an independent state on the model of Transnistra or of integration into Russia on the Crimea pattern seems to be ever less likely. Thus the option of greater autonomy under the existing constitution by parliamentary action seems the more likely, though there may be demands for a constitutional convention and the institutionalising of autonomy in a new constitution.Thus one possible model for the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics are the states created at the time of the break up of the Soviet Union: Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistra in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh (still torn between Armenia and Azerbaijan), and the Chechen Republic. One reason why President Putin suggested not having a referendum in Ukraine may have been his fears that the pattern of holding unauthorised referendums would spread. There are a good number of peoples in Russia who are unhappy with the current constitutional status of their area, and could look to creating a referendum to express their wishes.  

The Ukraine crisis has shown how easily the dogs of the Cold War can be awakened from their sleep.

The Ukraine crisis has shown how easily the dogs of the Cold War can be awakened from their sleep. The military, intelligence services and ad hoc armed groups are never far away. While many of us who had worked for better relations between the USA and USSR, NATO and Warsaw Pact during the 1960-1990 period have often gone on to other conflict resolution issues such as the conflicts in the wider Middle East and Africa, the Ukraine events demonstrate that there is still work to do in Europe.

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