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On federalism, Ukraine, rhetoric & accountability

Dr Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Deputy foreign minister (2005-2011).

Published time: April 09, 2014 12:43
Russian state emblem is set on the symbolic border's pillar in front of regional state administrative building in eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on April 9, 2014. (AFP Photo / Alexander Khudoteply)

The issue of federalism has become a focal point in the international effort to settle the Ukrainian crisis.

It started with the EU’s ill-conceived attempt at self-landing Ukraine unilaterally into a more positive and sustainable future, presumably, for the common good. I’d like to cite two examples of the softening power of federalism.

First, Henry Kissinger in ‘Diplomacy’ (1994) wrote about the lack of political culture of moderation in the militaristic Germany, united by Bismarck as a Greater Prussia. This critical flaw wouldn’t dissipate and would ultimately make Germany want to go to war. Our great poet and thinker Fyodor Tyutchev, who spent 20 years in Munich as a diplomat, wrote in the late 1840s that there was no room in Europe for a united Germany as an empire, only as a federation. History proved him right, but it took two world wars to arrive at the rational solution.

It also proves that such issues are of legitimate interest to others. The history of the first German unification bears witness to something else. The Crimean War, unleashed for reasons that seem petty in hindsight, and especially the humiliating provisions of the Treaty of Paris, all but destroyed the collective capability of Europe to manage the rise of Germany.

Secondly, many stable countries tend to be federations (and the most stable of all, Switzerland, is a confederation). That is true of the United States, Russia and others. In some countries, like the UK, federalism is introduced by stealth, i.e. under another name, like devolution. Professor V. Bogdanor in his letter to the Financial Times (April 4) explains why. In his view, which I fully share, “a model of democracy based on the untrammeled rights of majorities cannot work in a divided society.” What is required is a dispersal of power, whatever one might call it (power-sharing or anything else). Indeed, “to insist on the absolute rights of majorities either in Ukraine or in Crimea is self-defeating.”

Just to pursue that logic further, the problem of democracy in the EU could be resolved through shaping a Europe of regions as a counterweight to Brussels if, of course, national jurisdictions are to be further trimmed. Brussels’ bureaucracy and the way it operates have a lot to do with the crisis in and around Ukraine. Unaccountability begets irresponsibility. Brussels means nobody in particular, and European solidarity comes into play to cover the incompetence up.

Pro-Russian protesters they gather outside a regional government building in Donetsk, April 8, 2014. (Reuters / Maks Levin)

Anyway, it is only now, that people start recognizing that Brussels has been at fault in its Ukrainian project. As Gideon Rachman concedes in his blog, “the EU treated policy towards Ukraine as a technical exercise.” But for us it is difficult to be that indulgent, since we always inquired with Brussels as to what was cooking, and the response was “you’ll see when the draft Association Agreement has been initialed.” Yes, we saw it and minced no words in that it trampled upon our trade and economic interest vis-à-vis our neighbor.

In response we heard harsh rhetoric supported by capitals of EU member-states. And it was only in the course of the crisis that our EU partners admitted that Russia does have a legitimate economic interest in Ukraine. But the situation in Ukraine had already been rocked by then.

To salvage what could be salvaged under the circumstances, we pushed forward the idea that a deep constitutional process must precede presidential and parliamentary elections. This sequence was key to the internationally-mediated agreement reached between President Yanukovich and the opposition on February 21. It was not about the personal fate of Yanukovich, it was all about doing things right in a divided and destabilized nation. What could be better than people feeling empowered and assured that nobody will impose upon them someone’s national and historical narrative, which has always been the stuff of civil wars?

The Crimea’s independence and joining Russia helped to get this message across. The recent Weimar Triangle Foreign Ministers’ statement acknowledges the importance of the February 21 agreement and trilateral discussions to stabilize Ukraine.

It now depends on the West whether we achieve those objectives. That would define a real de-escalation. Moscow has always been in favor of dealing with issues of the so-called ‘common neighborhood’ collectively. Had it been done that way from the outset we would have no crisis in Ukraine on our hands, nor would we have seen the logic of tit-for-tat unilateralism in action.

But our partners will have to overcome the rhetoric-driven political culture, which is mostly about appearances. I will quote from Senator Mansfield’s memorandum on Vietnam, presented to President John Kennedy on 20 August 1963: “Have we first over-extended ourselves in words, and then, in search of a rationalization for the erroneous over-extension, moved what may be essentially a peripheral situation to the core of our policy considerations?” (Thurston Clarke, JFK’s Last Hundred Days, p.75).

The situation is different now, but the flawed method of dealing with it is pretty much the same. And it is the right method that ensures the right outcome.

Why not admit to an error and make things worse? Certainly, it would be a different matter if someone needs this artificially-engineered crisis as a refuge from lots of intractable problems back home.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.