Several commentators and analysts have recently proposed the idea of a federal Ukrainian state as a means of balancing power between the more Ukrainophone West and Russophone Southeast. Such an idea could potentially work, but only if implemented on an oblast-by-oblast level, not on a broad regional level. The reason for this is that each individual oblast within Ukraine has its own unique nuances and circumstances which must be seriously considered.
For example, there is the far-western Zakarpattia Oblast. This mountainous region has been typically classified as being part of “Western Ukraine,” and indeed geographically, this is the case. However, as I wrote in an earlier analysis, the people here are so unique that many view themselves as a different East Slavic ethnic group entirely, known as Rusyns or Carpatho-Rusyns. They were promised autonomy by Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk in the 1990s, but it was never implemented. There are also sizeable ethnic minorities here, particularly Hungarians, Romanians, Russians, Slovaks, and Gypsies. The region’s voting patterns tend to be more like that of a region in Central Ukraine rather than Western Ukraine, with close contests between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates. A region with such a diverse and complex character as Zakarpattia would benefit greatly from federalism. It would gain better representation in Kiev and its unique concerns would receive much better attention.
Federalism would likewise benefit the Russophone regions of Ukraine’s Southeast. An example that comes to mind in this regard is the cosmopolitan Southeastern oblast of Odessa. Linguistically Russophone with smatterings of Surzhyk, this region is not only home to Ukrainians and Russians but also sizeable communities of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Gagauz, Gypsies, and others. A federal structure of government would guarantee representation for Odessa’s mosaic of multiculturalism (with an emphasis on “culture” as this, between literature, theatre, and humor, is a truly Odessan specialty).
Further, other regions in the mixed Surzhyk-Russophone Central Ukraine would also benefit. I earlier highlighted unique oblasts such as Sumy and Kirovohrad with very sizeable Russophone populations and highly competitive elections between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates. Federalism would give the people of these and other oblasts in the more mixed Central Ukraine a better voice in Kiev as well.
Given this, one must acknowledge that despite its potential benefits, federalism can be a difficult system to both design and implement. It requires consensus and balance of the kind that is currently not present in Ukrainian politics, especially in the present Yatsenyuk government. In fact, rising tensions behind the scenes between Washington and Moscow may only serve to complicate the situation further.
However, bearing that in mind, one can be cautiously hopeful for a future federal solution in Ukraine. It is a solution that can bring the country together and can avert a major crisis such as a potential partition or conflict. A partition of Ukraine would be especially troublesome, particularly given the mixed character of Central Ukraine. If hostilities were to erupt between the West and Southeast, the Center could become divided by loyalties between the two, with divisions even running through families. Meanwhile, in a potential partition or conflict, the unique region of Zakarpattia may even takes its own path.
That said, the best way to avert such a potential scenario would be to find a way to better represent the diverse population of Ukraine and to guarantee the balance-of-power. Such a solution can be found in federalism, provided that it be a federal system implemented on an oblast-by-oblast basis.