Postcolonial Ukraine: Why Federalization is Not an Option for Kiev

Nicholai N. Petro recently suggested that federalization is a possible solution for the many problems of Ukraine. While I share this hope, I do not think this will be a path the political class of Kiev is likely to take. To Petro the lessons of history are clearly pointing towards federalization as a success story. I doubt this: Post-colonial Africa gives us plenty of examples for the failure of federalism

Ukraine shares many similarities with Africa’s post-colonial states. Like Nigeria and the Congo for instance, Ukraine is the product of imperial politics. Africa’s external and internal borders do not reflect historical identities and relationships that existed prior to colonial conquest. Europeans who draw the border did so with no regard or even knowledge of local realities. African societies with different historical trajectories, with different cultures, languages and religions were caged in a colonial territory that made sense only for European colonial officials. Ukrainians share a similar experience. Today’s Ukraine is the result of imperial rivalries of the 19th century and the Soviet expansion after the two world wars. It put together people that had experienced the Zarist, the Habsburgian and the Soviet empire, the Ukrainian and Polish Republics,  and of course the different shades of German occupation in the First and Second World War. There are dozens of language groups, ethnicities and religious communities in Ukraine now.

After independence, African post-colonial states preserved colonial. The founding of the OAU in 1963 was foremost an attempt to install a consensus among the emerging states that the existing colonial borders had to be sacrosanct. Only Somalia resisted this consensus because it claimed parts of Ethiopia and Kenya as its historical legacy. But most African politicians feared war if the box of the Pandora was opened.  This view was supported by the  international community. The UN  even waged one of its biggest military operation in its history to revoke the independence of Katanga. For the next decades, Africa was spared from major wars between states (with the exemption of Somalia), but many states experienced a constant insecurity of their border regions. Neighboring states supported more or less clandestinely separatist movements or political rebellions.

Ukraine too is based on a consensus within the international order after the end of the Soviet Union. For the sake to prevent wars for the adjustment of borders serving  particular interests of minorities, the former Soviet republics agreed to the inviolability of borders once drawn by Moscow. Both the Ukrainian and the African cases show, however, that borders that serve a consensus within the international order may work for a while, but they offer always a potential for crisis ready to be exploited by ambitious politicians. From the view of local or regional politics such borders remain fragile and manipulable for very different political agendas. The still lasting conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a case in point.  This long-lasting conflict still gives Moscow a certain leverage over the events. Russian support for separatists in Abkhazia, Ossetia and now in the Donbass follows similar intentions. Only in the case of Crimea Moscow acted in a more open way. The hostile rejection to this step by close allies like Belarus and Kazakhstan shows that Putin indeed acted against the established consensus of the post-Soviet world.

The persistence on colonial borders in Africa was a profound paradox. African politicians like Kwame Nkrumah or Patrice Lumumba fought for independence to eradicate colonialism, but they founded their political kingdoms on the very foundations of colonialism. Nearly every African ruler faced some sort of separatist aspirations. Nkrumah crushed every little call for more autonomy among the Asante, Lumbumba and his successors fought with the help the UN and even mercenaries to bring Kasai and Katanga back under Congolese suzerainty, Nigeria fought a four year long bloody war against separatist Biafra. The usual argument against a greater regional autonomy was the fight against tribalism. For Africa’s political elites, tribalism was a major hindrance on the way to progress and national unity. Most African nations invented a national history in which the fight against colonial rule was the founding myth. Local or regional histories were often reduced to folk tales. National traditions were created out of a basket of different local customs or one particular culture was made into a national culture. Nobody perhaps went so far as Congo’s Mobuto. He created a single Congolese culture complete with new dances, songs, festivals and a whole new philosophy, which he called authencité. He renamed Congo into Zaire, cities and rivers got new names, too. Even the people themselves had to choose a more African sounding name and men had to wear the abacost, Mobuto’s version of Nehru’s or Mao’s costume.

What we see today in Ukraine is very similar. Demands for regional autonomy are equaled with separatism and a refusal to modernize. The people of Donbas are regularly portrayed as those who live in the past and stubbornly refuse the (European) future of Ukraine.  Language policy is tantamount to nation building as it was in postcolonial Africa. Quotas for Ukraine language in public life were recently introduced. Cultural traditions like the “Shukhevych Fest” were invented, even the constant promotion of a Ukrainian national cloth fits into this pattern (Anatoly Shary made some very funny videos on this topic). Compare this to Mobutu’s legendary abacost. Street names were changed, Soviet monuments are being demolished. This invention of tradition is an expression of a particular vision of Ukrainian history that takes into account the historical experiences of Western rather than of Eastern Ukraine. Relationships of minorities with neighboring countries based on a shared history or identity are suspiciously viewed by Kiev as a threat to national unity. In the case of the Donbass this became the main interpretation of causes of war. Recently, however, Hungarian and Bessarabian minorities in western Ukraine came under scrutiny from Kiev. Its rulers fear the centrifugal forces, which they are too weak to contain.

The importance and the weakness of the state is perhaps the most striking similarity between post-colonial Africa and Ukraine. African post-independence rulers inherited from colonialism a view on the state as the main political force and final arbitrator in all parts of society. It was the state to develop societies and economies. Not surprisingly, the state was seen as the main source of political power.  Who owned the state, owned all: the society, the economy, the history. The state as a prey for politics, however, led to a vampire’s attitude of Africa’s rulers towards the state. As the colonial state was made to extract resources for the metropole, the post-colonial state was seen a vehicle to enrich the new political class and to contain the aspiration of political or economic rivals.

For the first generation of African rulers there was one important lesson to be learnt from their rise to power. In 1950s and 1960s, independence was mostly preceded by elections. The winners got the mandate to negotiate the terms of independence as the future leaders of the country. The loosing parties were largely excluded from the negotiations and thus from the possibility to shape the political process in the country. This was pattern to be repeated in the following decades: In the gamble for the presidential palace there could be only one winner, those who lost gained nothing. Until today political compromise among contenders for the highest office is an often impossible task. Africa in its short political history after independence saw the longest terms of office for presidents in the world, but also the highest frequency of violent regime-changes.

Political power was concentrated in the hand of a small political elite and it was bound to one political centre. Those who gained control over the capital, owned the state. For the opposition, there was only the way to be absorbed by the ruling group or to emigrate to the periphery or to exile. One of the most remarkable episode was the independence of Angola. In 1974 at least three rebel movements claimed to be the representative of Angolans and therefore the legitimate political power to replace the leaving Portuguese. All rebels were aware that they had to control the capital to gain the state. The Marxist MPLA finally  won the race for Luanda and became recognized by most African countries as the legitimate government of Angola. The UNITA and FNLA were excluded from power and started a decade long guerrilla war. In post-colonial Africa, the control over the capital was and is essential in many ways. In most cases it is largest population center with a concentration of industry and trade. It is often the most important node for the infrastructure. More important perhaps is that is the place where the foreign embassies are located and were the main (in Africa often the only) international airport is. Who controls the capital controls the foreign policy and this means a lot for post-colonial states, which often are highly dependent on external funding for state expenditures. Every African president is eager to control and monopolize the influx of aid, credits and experts. This control is his major advantage over his political rivals. When in the 1990s, Western donors tried to diversify the recipients of aid, it consequently led to a deep political crisis of many African states.

This rule seems to me quite prevalent in Ukraine. In the first decade of independent Ukraine, the political class was able to form a compromise between its different factions or clans and between the different regions. Compromise became increasingly harder to achieve as a result of the Orange revolution. When Janukowytsch sent Tymoschenko to jail in 2011, he introduced the African way of winning an election. For the loser remains only prison, exile or death. Three years later lost the gamble for power in the Euromaidan and fled to exile. With the election of 2014 and the Party of Regions sinking into irrelevance the last remains of the compromise between different factions and regions disappeared. Kiev became the only important political center.

Like many African presidents, President Poroshenko is the main foreign policy actor. I even have difficulties to recall that there is actually a minister of foreign affairs called Klimkin. It is Poroshenko who travels to Brussels, Washington and New York. It is he who negotiates with the IMF, the Minsk agreements, the EU Association. If the president celebrates his successes he often speaks about matters of foreign policy. The control over Ukraine’s external relations is his most important political capital. In the horse trade for external support, the rulers of Kiev use the control over the state is their main bargain. The state legitimates and controls the access to Ukraine’s vast natural resources.

The history of post-colonial Africa, however, teaches us that this could be a dangerous path for Ukraine. A major problem in African politics in the last decades was that the ruling classes owed much more responsibility towards their external donors and business partners than towards their constituency. Mobuto again gives us an extreme example: In the last decade of his presidency, he literally ruled his country from one of his villas in France. The fruits of foreign aid enriched Swiss banks and French property agents but not the Congolese.

A major topic in the foreign policy of post-colonial states was the relationship towards the former colonial power.  Lumumba for instance was a fierce critic of Belgian colonialism and saw everywhere Belgian machinations to revoke Congolese independence. Tshombe had not a problem at all with the Belgians. Doing business with them for decades prior to independence, his family had become rich. Belgian firms and former colonial agents supported his separatist drive and later government. The relationship towards the former imperial power is today the main line of conflict between the separatists in the Donbass and the central government in Kiev. While the West-Ukrainians see the soviet period as a time of occupation, the eastern part of Ukraine has a more positive, if not nostalgic view on the Soviet Union. For Kiev the relationship towards Russia became a major question of political identity. Notably in the last weeks, President Poroshenko often sounds like Kwame Nkrumah in the 1960s: The break with the “Russian Empire”, the liberation from the “Soviet System” is his mission.

Even with all this tantrum and decorum, Kiev as a political center is weak. It struggles to contain the various regional demands for more autonomy, which often include the establishment of special relationships across the border. The Donbass with its orientation towards Russia is only one among others. Transcarpathia is seeking more autonomy from Kiev and a closer relationship with Hungary. So does Bessarabia with Rumania. Local oligarchs try to keep the central state at distance. Not only because they fear more control or taxes, but because the state is in the hand of a rival oligarch. The rulers of Kiev indeed have used the state in the past to settle feuds with other oligarchs. To share this resource of power would be political and economic suicide for Poroshenko. African post-colonial rulers knew this all too well. Almost all federalist experiments in Africa were quickly abandoned or reduced to insignificancy in the 1960s and 1970s.

Michael Pesek is a visiting professor of history at the University of Hamburg.