A Horizontal Ukraine
No. 2 2014 April/June
Vladimir Bruter

Expert of the International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies.

Vyacheslav Igrunov

Vyacheslav Igrunov is Director of the Institute for Humanities and Political Studies.

How to Preserve the State

Both the Ukrainian political system and the state are on the verge of collapse. With no end to the crisis in sight, it is too early to make any conclusions, especially considering all the uncertainty. Thus, the musings below are not about reforms or their inevitability, and not even about what needs to be done, since it is unclear who is interested in a resolution. Rather, this article considers the how and what of immediate action.


In the almost twenty-five years since Ukraine gained its independence, the country still does not have a normal political system with a healthy opposition. As evident by Pyotr Poroshenko’s victory at the presidential elections in late May, the Ukrainian opposition neither has a position nor clear political convictions. A popular politician who appeared at the right time, Poroshenko is gaining ground. What he said and did over the past 20 years does not matter, which explains the large number of defectors in Ukrainian politics. Most of the “real” figures with “real” influence in the regions are frequently prepared to reposition themselves to the “winner:” they ran to the one from Donetsk before Maidan, but abandoned him afterwards. But it is not clear what troubles them more in this model – the lack of a dominating force or uncertain troubles.   

The last (and practically only) leader of Ukraine with a strongly pronounced ideology was the national democrat Viсtor Yushchenko, whom the “moderates” from the Party of Regions opposed. When reversed, the pattern did not work. Having come to power, the Party of Regions did not take an “anti-national-democratic” or moderate course. Moreover, all attempts by Yulia Timoshenko, her Batkivshchina party, and subsequently the united opposition to accuse the incumbent authorities of treason proved futile. Problems came from a direction no one had expected.  

After winning the majority of votes in the parliamentary elections of 2012, Batkivshchina, Svoboda, and Udar strongly disapproved of the government. This was a dangerous situation for Galicia, which had overwhelmingly voted against the candidates from Donetsk. Unable to change political sentiment in Western Ukraine, the authorities helped to turn that region into a political ghetto. The military faction of the Maidan coalition largely consisted of the “Galicia resistance movement” and was a reaction to the political isolation imposed by Kiev.

Experts were hard-pressed to describe the economic policy of Yanukovich and his team. His policy can be described as “economic determinism with a strong oligarchic influence.” It seems funny now that the Party of Regions used to speak about a socio-democratic choice and even cooperated with the European left (and, simultaneously, with the Russian right). 

However, everything looks simpler in terms of political preferences. Naturally, a party that represents one – albeit very large – macro-region of Ukraine can (or probably even should) be a part of the government, but it cannot serve as its ideological foundation. The participation of Donetsk representatives in the government corresponds to the “horizontal principle,” but domination does not. Since 2010, Donetsk representatives have dominated Ukrainian politics. This situation spurred the continuous growth of dissent to a critical point and eventually led to political collapse. 

Yet the situation in Ukraine was not conducive to ideological competition between the authorities and the opposition. The latter did not offer any real alternatives; instead they preferred to pressure the president and the government. The opposition continuously insulted Yanukovich (to throw him off balance) and advocated a forceful scenario (or an imitation of one) as the only way to implement change.


The evolution of Ukrainian parliamentarianism is quite noteworthy. The first Verkhovna Rada elected in 1994 had only a few defectors and was full of distinctive personalities. The Verkhovna Rada of 2008 was elected by the proportional system from the “staunch fighters” on both sides (it is enough to remember the vote on Timoshenko’s nomination as prime minister when she received the support of 226 out of 450 MPs). By 2012, about a quarter of the deputies had changed their factions and the average Ukrainian did not remember the names of more than ten deputies.

 As a generator of Ukrainian policy, the Rada reflects clearly and precisely the essence of ongoing processes. Politics should never turn into an appendix of the administrative system. And this is exactly what has happened since the 2006 elections when the Rada was locked in confrontation and paralyzed amid a never-ending political crisis. Early (and unconstitutional) elections in 2007 were an attempt by Yushchenko to resolve the crisis, but they produced the opposite result, creating a permanent crisis.    

The horizontal structure of the Ukrainian political system was used extensively after the 2002 elections when the ruling party, having suffered a devastating defeat under the proportional system, had to form a majority among deputies who had won in one-seat constituencies, which gave it a distinct regional slant. 

After the Ukrainian parliament elected its leaders, a new cabinet of ministers was formed and the “For United Ukraine” faction was dissolved and replaced by a dozen different groups, half of which were clearly regional in nature. Surprisingly, this (seemingly) unstable structure existed for two and a half years until the presidential elections of 2004. And even after that, when the “Oranges” came to power, the structure was easily readapted to the new requirements, but the regional elites never lost touch with it. To a large extent this gave the parliament (in such a complex country as Ukraine) the necessary flexibility and sensitivity. The Verkhovna Rada-2002 had a fairly good composition and worked steadily throughout the session.

Naturally, this did not happen all by itself. Victor Medvedchuk’s (the then presidential chief of staff) political adroitness behind the scenes proved to him that there could be a solution and it turned out to be quite effective. Such clearly defined regional groups existed in the parliaments elected in 1994 and 1998 (for example, Dnepropetrovsk’s Unity created in 1994 by Pavel Lazarenko, which to some extent ushered in Gromada), but those groups had less maneuvering room. The opposing Communist Party of Ukraine and the Rukh held the strongest positions in the first two Radas, which limited the president’s political options. 

When passing on power to the Donetsk representatives led by Yanukovich, Kuchma and Medvedchuk tried to create a system of counterbalances that would require Yanukovich to have his decisions approved by the Rada and to discuss them not only with political leaders, but also with regional groups. This system acted like the upper house of parliament in order to keep the Donetsk team’s willfulness in check and safeguard the balance between regions. As a result, the period from 2002 to 2004 was the best for economic development in post-Soviet Ukraine. The Rada-2002 was one of the most constructive parliaments and calmly survived the change of power in 2004.  

Yanukovich understood that the election formula had to be “played back ten years.” He not only had to carry Donetsk and Lugansk, but also had to get the support of at least some of the political elites in the central and western regions of the country. But no one can step in the same political river twice. The restored formula of 1998-2002 was bulky, contradictory, and could not create a stable and effective political system. Furthermore, Yanukovich is not Kuchma, and Klyuyev and Levochkin are not Medvedchuk. The Donetsk team was never good at checks and balances and expected political loyalty, not position, from regional leaders and independent deputies in exchange for helping business. But this scheme did not work. All attempts by independent deputies to create their own group were blocked. However, this did not help the presidential administration. When Yanukovich’s power became shaky, deputies from one-seat constituencies started making deals with “the future victors.”  

The mixed election formula proved ineffective and to some extent unfair as it pushed Ukraine backward rather than forward. Moreover, it could not create a political class of such quality necessary for reforms. The revival of the mixed electoral system in Kiev would inevitably reproduce the situation where the majority in the City Council would constantly readjust itself to the current political climate.


The Donetsk team frequently said that a referendum was essential in order to make Russian an official language. But a referendum was not necessary. The team simply had to realize (and agree with) some of the initial points:

  • The linguistic situation in Ukraine is not unique. It can be resolved both in terms of definition and implementation (there is more than just one solution).
  • A large number of problems are caused by the fact that the notion of official language is construed too broadly in Ukraine (primarily from the political and educational points of view). Without getting into details, we will say that current democratic legislation (in the majority of developed democratic countries) does not regulate the use of languages at the non-state (including municipal) level. Language belongs to citizens, not to the state.

Galicia should have given up the idea of making the whole country speak Ukrainian. First of all, such attempts have never been successful and often turn into political manipulations. Second (and this is much more serious), everyone needs to understand that the Russian language does not interfere with Ukrainian statehood. Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Donbass or Odessa would not want to go east if their demands to give Russian official status were respected and understood. And there is no need to declare a day of the Russian language in Lvov—that would be ridiculous because we are talking about the official, not spoken, language. There is a difference between the two.  

It is also wrong to think that the Ukrainian language will die out if Russian is used. Ukrainian did not cease to exist during the 70 years of Soviet power and 200 years of tsarist rule, when its use was deliberately limited; therefore why should it wither away in an independent Ukraine, where its status is protected by the Constitution? Such views are based on mistrust in one’s own strength and the country. And this is unacceptable for the development of the state.

Finally, and most importantly, as long as people mull over the language issue, there will be neither real reforms nor a modern and efficient state. Unless regions (especially on such a sensitive matter) feel that they are equal (horizontal), political reform in Ukraine will not move forward.

History, culture, and language can divide Ukrainians into southern, eastern, western, and central, but that is not a problem all by itself. The experience of Ukrainian parliamentarianism indicates that the split between western and eastern regions does not lead to a continuous standoff between the western and eastern political elites. With all the complexities, the elites are ready to negotiate with each other for consensus, and even the turmoil of recent events has not affected this.  

Many countries have overcome national divisions. Indeed, how did the United States deal with the consequences of its bloody Civil War between the North and the South? What happened to the rating of the omnipotent Bloc Québécois that wanted to secede from Canada? Or a more recent example: how can Germany be ruled if the left (the successors of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party of Germany) get 40 percent of the votes in East Berlin and 25 percent in the eastern provinces?

However, none of this is possible without large-scale political reform that includes administrative and territorial components. It seems that the interim Ukrainian government has realized that language is the smallest price to pay for stability, but it may be too late.


The new Ukrainian authorities are trying to shy away from binding decisions and to shift responsibility to their Western partners. But life will go on and the West – not even a collective one that unanimously agrees on Ukraine – will not be able to create a functional political system or devise a pattern of relations between regions or between regions and the central government. This can only be done by Ukraine itself and done quickly. All this fuss over Crimea and southeastern Ukraine distracts people’s attention from real problems, but only for a time. Western financial aid, which will not be very substantial, can act as an anesthetic, but no more than that. 

 Western sanctions will only increase Russia’s determination and belief that there was no other way to act. The impression is that Kiev does not know how to exist now that Crimea is gone. But it will have to do so and build relations with Russia. Regardless of the situation, Ukraine will not be able to keep the West’s attention indefinitely.

Naturally, some of the elite would like the West to bear constant responsibility for Ukraine, including membership in NATO and the European Union. But the West simply has no money for such integration. Besides, the West does not like “chronic patients,” especially big ones. Those who still have illusions can look at Romania and Bulgaria, which have been in the process of joining the Schengen Area for seven years. So, Ukraine will have to put up with the loss of Crimea and restore mutually acceptable relations with Russia.

Generally speaking, the easier Ukraine takes the loss of Crimea, the easier it will be for Ukraine to fit into the “post-revolutionary” reality. Crimea never was, is not, and never will be the core of Ukrainian statehood. It is absurd to pretend that Crimea “became Ukrainian” during the 23 years of Ukrainian independence. It did not. It never felt Ukrainian and has a right to decide its own fate. Kiev should not be overly focused on Crimea since this will create the risk of recrudescence, initially in the East and then probably in the South.     

The situation in eastern Ukraine has already spiraled out of control. Real repression against pro-Russian activists will neither “soothe” nor “remedy” the situation. It (and this is a standard instance) has already created a situation in which the moderates in the South and the East can no longer speak on behalf of their regions and constituencies. Incidentally, Yanukovich never tried to “shut off” Western Ukrainian activists even though they had become a nuisance to him. The West should remember that when it talks about democracy in Ukraine and the right of different regions to autonomy and representation in the government.  

The authorities must look for a compromise and do so quickly. The compromise will not mean negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. Everything is much more complex and simpler at the same time. Ukraine will have to talk with Ukraine, while the West and Russia can only act as arbiters who adhere to opposite views, but who are equally interested in stability.


Instead of building a viable Ukrainian state from the very beginning, Kiev and the West decided to deter and punish Russia. The new authorities should have begun urgent negotiations with real regional leaders on the future system in Ukraine before a new president was elected.

 Russia had always approved such negotiations, but they were never proposed. It is also possible that the West did not object to some additional rights for southern and eastern Ukraine, albeit limited, in the distant future and under its control. But the situation changed abruptly after 21 February 2014, and negotiations would have required the winner to sacrifice what it had achieved. Several days later the situation changed so dramatically that Kiev had to start looking for someone to blame and naturally pointed to Russia. In fact, how could Ukraine blame itself?

The formula for compromise is obvious. For instance, Ukraine could change the state system and give each region rights similar to those of the Swiss cantons. Ukraine could create a collective mechanism of central government and a presidency modeled on the Swiss experience, which is a continuous coalition of majority parties (not dependent on the results of elections but on regions). Additionally, Ukraine should make Russian an official language, reject membership in the EU and NATO, and declare financial decentralization.

All sides must assume binding obligations to guarantee the inviolability of Ukraine’s new constitution and territory, etc. Russia would support such a compromise. But the West must remember that a compromise presupposes two sides. However, I have the feeling that we will once again hear a new “gem” from Mr. Barroso as we have repeatedly in the past. For example, “the Constitution says that Ukraine is a unitary state and this cannot be changed…”  

In order to survive and retain its sovereignty, Ukraine should become a horizontal state. Attempts to replace internal reforms with agreements with the West will not help. The Ukrainian people, not international organizations, are the source of reforms and the country’s viability. 

When speaking of state ideology, differences are the most evident in Belgium and Switzerland. In Switzerland, representatives of different ethnic groups have created a society where all members essentially have the same understanding of national interests. That is not the case with Belgium.

Let’s go further. In 1996, Switzerland held a referendum in which Swiss citizens had to decide whether Romansh (a Rhaeto-Romanic language) should have official status in all of Switzerland, not only in the Canton of Graubünden (Grisons) where the Romansh people live. All political parties in Switzerland supported the referendum, which ended positively for the Romansh language. 

All cantons approved the referendum: 80-85 percent in the French- and Italian-speaking cantons, and 65-70 percent in the German-speaking regions. The smallest percentage (about 46-48 percent) was cast in German-speaking villages (mainly Walsers) within the “ethnic Romansh territory” in Graubünden (in the southern part of the canton).

This complex and little known example demonstrates one simple thing: no “new man” was bred in Switzerland. Any ethnic (ethnocultural) group in Graubünden or elsewhere is very sensitive about the status of neighboring ethnic groups. Such is life and this is one of its universal laws. In addition to popular emotions, the consolidated position of Switzerland’s elite can be stated as follows:

  • there should be no pariahs in the country no matter how politely they are named;
  • everyone has inherently equal rights and if those rights have not been respected historically, this must be corrected;
  • giving official status to a minority language reflects an understanding of success and is an outlook that should be important for all Swiss citizens. This can be described as “unity through difference.”

All of this is relevant for Ukraine as well. The concepts of “national breakthrough,” “national revolution,” “improvements,” and other quasi ideologies are senseless if there is no vision of the future, perspectives, and understanding of how to achieve success. Such ideologies are targeted at meeting immediate needs or seeking historical revenge, which is impossible in real politics and has no future prospects.