“Authorities” in Kiev Reject Federalism and Language Rights

April 3, 2014
Kiev “Administration” Prefers to Flirt with NATO
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

In the not-too-distant past, “federalism” was not a dirty word in Ukrainian politics, even from a western-oriented, nationalist perspective. For example, Professor Alexander J. Motyl of Rutgers University, a frequent commentator on Ukrainian affairs, last year made some thoughtful suggestions why decentralization made sense, especially in combating corruption (as AIU commented at the time, see “Decentralizing Ukraine: an Issue that Deserves Serious Discussion,” August 2013).

Now, however, western governments view the prospect of federalism as just a ploy to break up Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry has deferred the question of federalism to the unelected Kiev “administration,” which the U.S. and Europe uncritically accepted as the legitimate government and the authoritative collective voice of all of Ukraine’s people. Their rant is unsurprising:

"Why does Russia not introduce federalism ... Why does it not give more powers to national regions of the (Russian) Federation .. Why does it not introduce state languages, other than Russian, including Ukrainian, which is spoken by millions of Russians?", ...

"There's no need to preach to others. It's better to put things in order in your own house," .... [Reuters, “Ukraine hits back at proposals by Russia's Lavrov,”March 31, 2014]

Of course, the Russian Federation does in fact have a functional federal structure. Under Article 68 of the Russian Constitution, subjects of the federation have the right to adopt state languages, which is more than Ukrainian oblasts can do. There are dozens of republican official languages, in fact including Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar, as well other languages with official status. Conversely, since no language other than Russian is in general, nationwide usage, it is the only state language on the entire territory of the federation.

This is in sharp contrast to Ukraine, where Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism is a fact of daily life in much if not most of the country, but Article 10 of Ukraine’s constitution declares absurdly that Russian is the language only of a “national minority.” If and when Ukraine decides to take a hard look at federalism, the fact of Ukraine’s functional bilingualism needs to be given a more realistic legal framework that promotes unity, not disunity, benefitting from the experience of other bilingual or multilingual countries. One way to do that would be in the form of a national accord that defines the roles of Ukrainian and Russian as national languages in a federalized constitutional structure. In addition, Kiev’s performance under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages remains inadequate with respect to truly minority languages like Romanian, Bulgarian, or Gagauz -- or Rusyn, which Kiev refuses to recognize at all, even though it is protected as an official minority language in Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, and elsewhere.

The harsh and misplaced response of the Kiev “administration” in rejecting even a discussion of federalism and language rights can only lead to further weakening of Ukraine’s cohesion, not its strengthening. Unfortunately, it’s clear where the Kiev “administration” is placing its priorities: on its geopolitical and military-strategic agenda. Yesterday, the NATO-Ukraine Commission issued a statement that included (presumably not intended as an April Fool’s joke):

“We welcome Ukraine’s signature of the political chapters of the Association Agreement with the European Union on 21 March.”

One would think that the “political chapters” in an agreement with a completely different organization – the European Union – would be none of NATO’s concern. But of course it is very much NATO’s business, as the agreement signed on March 21 obligates Kiev to harmonize its foreign and security policies with Brussels, which in turn is subordinated to NATO under the 2002 “Berlin Plus” agreement.

Continued misplacement of priorities by western governments in their determined support for the unrepresentative and unelected Kiev “administration” can only threaten Ukraine’s already fragile unity.