1. Federalization

In Ukraine, parties on the losing end of the electoral process take turns demanding federalization or even secession.

The idea’s been floating around for years; The Svoboda party, formerly known as the Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine, includes decentralization in their official platform.  After Viktor Yanukovich, whose power base is located in Ukraine’s Russian- speaking south-west won presidential elections in 2008, the Svoboda stronghold of Galicia was talking secession.  Their head, Oleh Tyahnybok, is currently against federalization, however:

Regarding the idea of federalization, this structure suits Russia, where in some regions ethnic minorities make up a majority of the population such as Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Ingushetia, Buryatia and others. The idea of Ukrainian federalization is nothing more than another underhanded attempt to weaken Ukrainian statehood and subordinate Ukraine to Putin’s geopolitical ambitions.

That Ukraine is a homogeneous society would be news to people mildly familiar with the country.

The current push for federalization is spearheaded by, among others, Ukrainian Communists as well as Vladimir Putin, who, while massing his troops on Ukraine’s border, continues the talk of extending self-rule of Ukraine’s regions, something that Russia does not allow.  Federalization is a frequent demand of separatists in the south-east.

Mikhail Dobkin, the former Kharkiv mayor and gubernatorial appointee of the deposed Yanukovich, is running for president on the platform of federalization.

Dobkin, however, is not a serious candidate because a) his Party of Regions is all but dead; b) he’s a bona fide Jew in a country where politicians go out of their way to hide their Jewish roots and c) he doesn’t appear to have support outside of Kharkiv.

[Ukrainian GDP by region. Dnipropetrovsk governor and second richest person in the country Ihor Kolomoisky had formed his own security force in the wake of Maidan's victory]

To be sure,  federalization is not a popular idea, and Ukrainians view centralized government as the perfect expression of the nation-state.

And yet it continues to be tossed around by all sorts of politicians, among them the mayor of the western-most city of Lviv, Andriy Sadovy.  Proponents of federalization include high profile Western figures, most notably, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics Roger Meyerson.

[Ukrainian budget. Regions colored in green give more than they receive in subsidies. Orange regions are currently a drain on the budget]

Russia and the West don’t have a lot of common ground when it comes to this subject.

In American understanding, federalization implies direct elections of regional governments (currently Ukrainian governors are appointed by the presidents, as are their Russian counterparts) and local tax collection.  This idea of local tax levy is more attractive to the few regions producing Ukrainian GDP.  Most of them are concentrated in the east, but Kyiv, where many companies are registered and pay taxes, looks good also.

Many in Ukraine’s industrial east are not thinking it through; once subsidies are factored in, Donetsk is a drain on the budget.  Presumably, Russia will have to invest in the region to modernize it after the takeover — if he goes that rout.  That is also factoring in natural gas reservoirs in Kharkiv and Donetsk into the geo-political calculus.

Putin wants to push federalization further, creating a structure in which each region will be conducting its trade and foreign policy.  Greenland, he says, is a part of Denmark, but while Denmark is a member of the EU, Greenland is not.  But Greenland doesn’t have Russia on its border.

It’s not hard to see where such an arrangement will lead.  At this moment, Putin is not interested in Chernovtsi or Ivano-Frankovsk, but he wants Donbas, Kharkiv and Odessa in the Custom’s Union.  Ukraine was never known for the rule of law, and its politicians are sell-outs.  The Kremlin will bribe and twist arms, going from region to region, bringing them under their sphere.

2. Going Bulba

Putin may have something else in mind.

Ukrainian independence is an intensely personal issue for the Russian public.  Russians are an imperial people; they regard all of their formerly subjugated people as little brothers and sisters, but Ukraine and Belorussia have a special place in their psyche — those are the Slavic brothers, the holy trinity of Eastern Europe.  There is a lot to the “close relatives” idea because so many Russians and Ukrainians live in ethnically mixed families and have relatives in each other’s countries and Russia drew so heavily on Ukrainian talent.  Belorussians know their place, but Ukrainians have an ornery streak about them.

Last month a video of a young Ukrainian woman reading her poem “We Will Never Be Brothers” went viral in Eastern Europe.  A few weeks later a Lithuanian composer set it to music.

When family metaphors start flying around expect interesting turns of events.  Putin might be careful to avoid  *heavy* bloodshed in Ukraine, but he can finish off the country.  I think of the quote from “Taras Bulba”*, a historical novella by Nicolai Gogol, a Russian writer of Ukrainian origin, set during the Bogdan Khmelnitsky uprising against Poland (and Jews) that lead to the Cossack alliance with Russia and eventual loss of their autonomy.

The novel went through many big screen adaptations, the latest one, a slick-looking ultra-violent epic Taras Bulba: The Conqueror (the conqueror?), was released in 2008 in Russia.  In that production, the Polish characters spoke Polish, but both Russians and Ukrainians spoke Russian and the filmmakers portrayed Polish atrocities that were not in the book.  Scenes from the film are used in social media outlets of Ukrainian separatists.

In Gogol’s story, Taras kills his son who switched over to the Polish side, uttering “Я тебя породил, я тебя и убью!” or “I gave you life, I will take it!”  Russia didn’t invent Ukrainian nationhood, but it put together the modern Ukrainian state which it now wants to destroy.

[Taras Bulba over the body of his son. Illustration by a Soviet Jewish artist Evgeny Kibrik.]

Duma court jester and radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky proposed a partition of Ukraine between Russia on the east and Poland, Romania and Hungary on the west.  It must be emotionally satisfying for a Russian nationalist to set an example of Ukraine for their other former subjects.  It sounds far-fetched, but so did the takeover of Crimea a few months ago.

This is a guest post by the author of the blog , an American citizen who grew up in Eastern Ukraine.