Ukrainian Regionalism and the Federal Option

Ukraine2004ElectionMapLike many other pundits, David Frum fears that Vladimir Putin is plotting to transform Ukraine into a weak federation and then transform some of its federal units into de facto Russian dependencies. As he argues in a recent Atlantic article:

In the weeks since Russian forces seized Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s plan for mainland Ukraine has become increasingly clear: partition. Putin’s ambassadors and ministers don’t use that word, of course. In talks with their U.S. and NATO counterparts, they prefer the word “federalism.” They want to organize manipulated referendums to create Russian-aligned governments in the eastern regions of Ukraine. These governments would be endowed with broad powers, including authority over trade, investment, and security. Russia would then reach deals with these governments in an arrangement that would amount to annexation in all but name.

Frum goes on to make some interesting observations about the ambiguities in the idea of a federation. As he notes, although Russia proclaims itself to be a federation rather than a national state, it is actually governed from the center, allowing little autonomy for its so-called federal subjects. As Frum explains:

Russia, of course, is itself one of the most centralized nations on earth. The president appoints regional governors, who in turn handpick the Federation Council, Russia’s Senate. The central government controls most state revenue, the police— really, almost everything.

Ukraine2006ElectionMapMy main complaint with Frum’s formulation is his use of the term “nation” in the first sentence. Russia may be a centralized state, but that does not make it a nation state, much less a nation, as its constituent nationalities are categorized as separate entities. In Russia, even passports make it clear that Tatars, Chechens, Jews, and others do not belong to the Russian nation, as explained in a previous GeoCurrents post.

The kind of federation that Putin seems to envisage for Ukraine, however, is not the superficial variety epitomized by Russia, but rather the fully decentralized type in which the federal government has scant power, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ukrainian nationalists loathe the idea of transforming their country into a loose amalgamation, seeing, like Frum, a pretext for de facto partition and Russian domination. But regardless of Russian designs, Ukraine will probably continue to have trouble cohering as tightly unified state, as its split between the generally Russian-oriented southeast and the nationalistic and Western-oriented northwest is too profound. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, the Russian-inclined candidate Victor Yanukovych won over 90 percent of the vote in two far east eastern oblasts (Luhansk and Donetsk), whereas his rival Victor Yushchenko took over 95 percent of the vote in two regions of the far west (Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil). Such deep polarization does not bode well for Ukraine’s political future.

As is evident (and as was explained in earlier GeoCurrents posts), Ukraine is thus divided into two political units by a line running from the southwest to the northeast. But both of the resulting “macroregions” are in turn politically subdivided. The remainder of this post will examine the divisions of the northwest, the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism.

UkrainePoliticalRegonsMapOn the map to the left, I have labeled the northwestern half of the country “Nationalist Ukraine,” as distinguished from the southeastern “Russia-Oriented Ukraine.” Based on recent voting patterns, I have divided the former unit into three subregions. The first, labeled here “Core Ukraine,” is marked by pronounced but not overwhelming support for Ukrainian nationalists and Western-oriented politicians. To the west of the core is a smaller region composed of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil oblasts, which is characterized by overwhelming support for Ukrainian nationalism along with Ukraine2012ElectionSvobodaMapa strong measure of extreme nationalism. In this region, called here Far Western Ukraine, the Orange-Revolution hero Victor Yushchenko took more than 93 percent of the vote in 2004. In the 2006 election, the Far West, unlike neighboring oblasts to the east, generally rejected the Yulia Tymoshenko Block, supporting instead Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. In the most recent election (2012), the extremist neo-fascist party Svoboda polled well only in this region, where it took more than 30 percent of the vote – and a plurality in Lviv.

Ukraine2012ElectionMapWhile the Far West is the most ardent part of Ukraine’s nationalistic greater northwest, the extreme western oblast of Zakarpattia barely fits the pattern. In 2012, the Russian-oriented Party of Region took a plurality of its votes. The extreme nationalist party Svoboda, moreover, is relatively weak here. Zakarpattia also distinguishes itself in its variable voting Ukraine2012ElectionOudarMappatterns, which separate district from district, as can be seen in the map of the 2006 election. Zakarpattia is also notable for having given a substantial percentage of its votes in 2012 to Vitali Klitschko, a former highly successful professional boxer dubbed “Dr. Ironfist” in reference both to his physically prowess and his educational attainment (he holds a doctorate in “sports science” and is an avid chess player).  Klitschko pushes for European integration, reduced corruption, and enhanced transparency, as well as lower taxes, but does not advocate cultural nationalism, viewing the language issues as relatively unimportant.

Ruthenia MapZakarpattia’s distinctiveness is rooted in part in its physical geography. Located on the far side of the formidable Carpathian Mountains from the rest of the country, it is located in and on the outskirts of the Danubian Basin, also known as the Pannonian Plain. As such, it is much more easily accessible from Budapest, Bratislava, and even Vienna than it is from Kyiv (Kiev), let alone Moscow.

Historical-geographical patterns also help explain the political regionalization of “Nationalist Ukraine.” The main part of this region, which I dubbed “Core Ukraine” on the map above, was long under Polish-Lithuanian domination, but came under Russian rule with the partition of Poland in the late 1700s. Far Western Ukraine, on the other hand, passed from Polish rule to the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire, forming the Ukraine1700PoliticalMapeastern portion of its region of Galicia. It was returned to Poland after World War I, and did not become part of the Soviet Union until the end of World War II. The Austrian period seems to have been crucial in nurturing the far West’s devotion to Ukrainian nationalism as well as identification with the West. The key factor here was the continued survival and indeed florescence of the Uniate Church, which had emerged in the late 1500s under Polish-Lithuanian rule, when the Roman Catholic Church successfully brought part of the local religious establishment under its umbrella as one of the so-called Eastern Catholic churches (such self-governing Catholic divisions were allowed to keep their own liturgies, as well as married priests). As explained in an excellent Wikipedia article on the history of Christianity in Ukraine:

Ukraine1900PoliticalMapThe Austrians granted equal legal privileges to the Uniate Church and removed Polish influence. They also mandated that Uniate seminarians receive a formal higher education (previously, priests had been educated informally by other priests, usually their fathers, as the vocation was passed on within families), and organized institutions in Vienna and Lviv that would serve this function. This led to the appearance, for the first time, of a large educated social class within the Ukrainian population in Galicia. As a result, within Austrian Galicia over the next century the Uniate Church ceased being a puppet of foreign interests and became the primary cultural force within the Ukrainian community. Most independent native Ukrainian cultural trends … emerged from within the ranks of the Uniate Church. The participation of Uniate priests or their children in western Ukrainian cultural and political life was so great that western Ukrainians were accused of wanting to create a theocracy in western Ukraine by their Polish rivals

Zakarpattia, or trans-Carpathian Ukraine, experienced a markedly different political history, as it was long part of Hungary, even during the period when Hungary was subordinated to Austrian power under the Hapsburg dynasty. It passed to Czechoslovakia in the inter-war period, and did not Austria-HungaryRutheniaMapbecome part of Ukraine, and hence the Soviet Union, until the end of World War II. This region’s local “Uniate” Church, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, was mostly eradicated, or at least forced underground, by Soviet-era persecution. As a result, it maintained its structures most successfully among emigrant populations in the United States. Incidentally, the best-known American member of this community is the pop-artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987), born Andrej Varhola, Jr. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Ruthenian Church’s main body in the United States, not coincidently, is the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh.

(Note: the base maps used for the historical maps here is the Euratlas, an excellent source. )




Introduction: Cultural Diversity and Political Division in Northern California

For the next several weeks, GeoCurrents will examine California, particularly the northwestern quarter of the state.  Our interest in California derives from several sources. First, GeoCurrents strives for global coverage, and as a quick glance at the Master Map reveals, North America has received relatively little attention. Second, northern California is the home base of the website, and as such we can delve into certain issues in greater depth than is possible elsewhere. Third, and most important, California—like the Caucasus— exhibits marked linguistic and cultural diversity, and it is also the site of some intriguing geopolitical issues.

The linguistic complexity of California exists in two forms: the first a ghostly aura of vanished and moribund indigenous languages, the second a cosmopolitan imprint of assorted immigrant tongues. Anthropologists have long noted the diversity of the native languages of California, which they divided into at least seven linguistic families. Many linguists, however, now doubt the validity of several of these groupings, arguing that California might have been home to as many as two dozen families, most of them limited to the state. If so, pre-contact California could have rivaled the highlands of New Guinea as the most linguistically intricate place on earth. The research necessary to validate such claims, however, is difficult if not impossible to carry out, as most of these languages are extinct and many were incompletely recorded, if at all.

The disappearance of most Californian languages resulted from the spread of European diseases starting in the late 1700s, followed first by the genocidal campaigns of settlers and the state in the mid-1800s and then by a long period of gradual cultural loss. But not all local languages died out, and conservation and revival efforts are now underway. Except in the northwest, few sizable American Indian reservations were established; instead, survivors largely persisted in urban areas or in tiny “rancherias” scattered over much of the state. Today, the intricacies of residual native sovereignty allow many of these rancherias to prosper as gambling refuges. In many cases, controversies over tribal membership have intensified, as many persons of vaguely indigenous background claim affiliation in order to profit from the casino economy.

Whereas California’s original linguistic diversity was intensively local yet broadly spread across the entire state, that of today is intensely global yet highly focused in particular areas. Over most of California, English is dominant and Spanish secondary, although in one county (Imperial), more people speak Spanish than English at home. In the state’s major metropolitan areas, in contrast, immigrants from numerous countries have introduced a large array of languages. Such diversity reaches its height in the high-tech core of the state—if not of the world. In Northern California’s so-called Silicon Valley, English may dominate public life, but it shares the private sphere with many other languages. At Hoover Elementary School in Palo Alto—where cheap 1950s tract houses sell for well over a million dollars—more than half of all students do not speak English at home. Language instruction in Palo Alto is often controversial, as local activists demand immersion programs in Mandarin Chinese and other languages, provoking strong opposition from other interested parties.

At first glance, geopolitical issues in California appear insignificant, especially when compared with a place as intricately divided and intensely disputed as the Caucasus. But although geopolitical clashes in the state may seem trivial, they illuminate foundational disputes about the structure of the United States. Such disagreements hinge on where the authority of the federal government ends and where that of the constituent states begins, a hoary debate that once went under the name of “states’ rights.” Over time, the U.S. has gradually moved from a fully federal system toward that of a more unitary state; before the Civil War, it was common to regard the country as a plural entity (“The United States are…”). Today such usage seems quaint if not merely illiterate, yet whenever the laws and policies of individual states come into conflict with those of the federal government, states’ rights issues once again gain prominence.

Northern California map, showing Silicon Valley, Oakland, and Mendocino CountyWhereas state’s rights battles in the mid-twentieth century usually focused on racial discrimination in the U.S. South, those of today more often turn to such legal issues as the legalization of marijuana (Cannabis). At present, the U.S. federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which supposedly have no legitimate uses, and as a result the sale and possession of cannabis is banned across the country. California, however, along with a number of other states, allows the consumption of cannabis for medical purposes, which are defined so broadly that virtually any adult can easily obtain a license. As a consequence, medicinal marijuana outlets have proliferated across much of the state.

For several years, the legal environment surrounding cannabis in California remained deeply ambiguous if not simply contradictory. Although proscribed by federal law, medical marijuana dispensaries remained unmolested by federal authorities. President Barak Obama, moreover, had pledged to respect California’s marijuana laws. The situation changed drastically, however, in October 2011, harvest season for the state’s cannabis cultivators. At that time, federal agents began raiding licensed dispensaries and growing cooperatives, threatening the owners of the buildings used for such purposes with real-estate expropriation. Medical marijuana advertisers received similar threats. But after a flurry of activity, calm returned as court cases slowly proceeded. Most marijuana outlets remain open, and Oakland’s “Oaksterdam University”—which provides “quality training for the cannabis industry”—is still thriving. Just last week, the city of Oakland moved to double the number of dispensaries within its boundaries. Oakland, reeling from the costs of the disruptive “occupy Wall Street/Oakland” movement, desperately wants the tax revenues that come from marijuana shops.

As the Oakland example shows, the cannabis dispute involves local jurisdictions alongside state and federal authorities. In several cases, slippage along the different levels of government generates heightened ambiguity. Nowhere are such issues as intensive as in Mendocino County, located in California’s northern coastal region. Like the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Mendocino relies on the cannabis crop. Marijuana is so central to the local economy that the county initiated its own licensing system in early 2011. In exchange for hefty county fees and periodic inspections, cultivators would be allowed to grow up to 99 plants, a sum that can easily net half a million dollars. Such a program, needless to say, contravened both federal and state laws. The experiment did not last long. In early 2012, higher authorities arrived in the county to shut it down, much to the consternation of the local public.

Over the next several weeks, GeoCurrents will dig into these issues and more, as we explore the diversity and intricacy of northern California.

The Sovereignty of Non-Sovereign States

The concept of sovereignty is a foundation of global politics. The countries that constitute the international system are supposedly defined by their ability to exercise supreme political authority over their entire territorial domains. But sovereignty in practice is often qualified, its limits varying as the context changes. This is particularly true in the United States.

The problem of sovereignty in the U.S. dates back to the foundational debates over whether the new country would be a confederation of independent states or a single federal state. The ratification of the constitution established union, but the degree of national sovereignty remained contested through the early decades of the 1800s. People still spoke of the country in the plural (“the United States are …”), and the federal government remained miniscule, hardly a state at all to many European visitors. It was the Supreme Court’s 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Marylandthat first clearly limited the authority of state governments while granting constitutionally implied powers to Congress. South Carolina’s failure to nullify the federal tariff in 1832 further cemented federal authority, and the defeat of the Confederate States in the Civil War seemingly settled the matter for good.

Yet the notion of state-level sovereignty never completely died, and today it is being revived. Nullification is again in their air as several state legislatures try to exempt their residents from the recent health-care bill. The concept of sovereignty is apparently in play, as voices call for the states to wrestle authority away from the federal government. According to the conservative website Right Side News, “the ‘State Sovereignty Movement’ continues to sweep the nation with well over three-quarters of the fifty states taking action, through their respective state legislatures, re-establishing their ‘sovereignty.’” Wyoming is the newest constitutionally sovereign state, after a bill was signed into law there on March 8, 2010. According to the Tenth Amendment Center, similar bills have been signed by governors in three other states, and have passed both branches of the legislature in an additional seven (see map).

What the Wyoming legislature has claimed, however, is obviously not true “sovereignty” as the word is generally defined. The leaders of the sovereignty movement do not want states to be governed without federal interference of any kind, much less to chart their own foreign policies. What they are seeking is rather extensive autonomy. Their justification stems from a strict reading of the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to the constituent states all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government. And it is unlikely that Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming wants even this limited form of sovereignty; a literal interpretation of the Tenth Amendment would shrivel the U.S. government to a fraction of its current size. Freudenthal, like many other proponents of “state sovereignty,” is likely more interested in making a symbolic statement in favor of states’ rights and against the further expansion of federal power.

The term sovereignty has several meanings. It primarily denotes the authority at the top level of the geopolitical hierarchy: the territorial unit that accepts no higher power. But it can also refer to the powers vested in the highest-order spatial subdivisions of those units, which by definition accept a subordinate political status. This same slippage is evident in the term “state.” A state in standard political discourse is the entity that holds sovereignty: the governmental apparatus that exercises ultimate power. But in the U.S. and a few other countries, states are also the highest order spatial divisions of the state. The origin of such conceptual imprecision dates to the formation of the United States, when the leaders of the breakaway colonies disagreed about whether they should form a federation or a confederation. In the end a federal government was formed, but vestiges of the confederal age were deliberately retained, remaining fixed in our language and ever ready to be deployed in the perennial tussle between Washington and the states.

The fifty United States, however, are not the only units in this country that claim sovereignty. The same is true of most Native American groups, as tomorrow’s post will explore.