Two peoples under one national roof: Ukraine’s constitutional dilemma and solutions made in Belgium

The greatest lesson of the Belgian experience in governance is that divorce is utterly thinkable and possibly preferable to a bad marriage of peoples who have aspirations, cultural orientation and economies as different as East Ukraine and West Ukraine have today. Read on…





/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:”Обычная таблица”;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;



  Two peoples under one national roof: Ukraine’s constitutional dilemma and solutions made in Belgium


                                                            by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


The compromise agreement to end the Ukrainian crisis brokered by the EU on 21 February is already in tatters. Responding to demands from Maidan, the Verkhovna Rada has passed a resolution removing President Yanukovich from power. For his part, Yanukovich has called the parliament’s action illegal and insists that he remains the legitimately elected head of state.  The split within the country is once again projected onto big power relations, with EU signatories of the negotiated settlement between Yanukovich and the opposition recognizing the legality of the parliamentary moves. Meanwhile on Saturday a six man delegation from Russia’s State Duma and four of its provinces bordering on Ukraine attended the regional meeting of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast and Crimea in Kharkiv which decried what it called a violent coup d’etat in Kiev and declared itself ready to defend the territory against any chaos arriving from the west of the country and Maidan.

The stage is set for the break-up of Ukraine into Left bank and Right bank states. We shall see in the coming months whether the leading candidate for the presidency in elections now slated for 25 May, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and her liberal party will have the skills and the resources to take power back in the Western Ukraine from the radicals of Svoboda and Pravy Sektor who today occupy not only downtown Kiev but also the city administrations in Lviv and other key towns. Will the liberals also be able to appease concerns of the Eastern Ukraine, which vociferously objects to the victory of Maidan in Kiev and refuses to obey the latest federal directives? Though the West Ukraine radicals still speak in the name of one nation, their policies and intents so contradict the beliefs and the economic interests of the East that they are de facto separatist.

What Ukraine has been passing through is a grass roots revolution, not a palace coup.  It was the military muscle of the extremists and their armed formations of ‘hundreds’ which made the victory, not Vitali Klitschko or Arseniy Yatsenyuk meeting in the presidential compound with EU representatives. The genie has been released from the bottle. Moderates, technocrats and others whom the IMF, the EU and the US would like to find as interlocutors are unlikely to have an easy ride in the days and weeks ahead as they try to reestablish order in the country.


Meanwhile, the competition for influence and the information war over Ukraine between EU and Russia may be expected to continue, further complicating the political tasks of whoever holds power in Kiev. And looking beyond the formation of a coalition cabinet and the presidential elections, the talks over urgently needed financial assistance from the IMF and Europe are likely to be tied to very unpopular economic reforms bringing down living standards and to the signing of an association agreement with the EU, the issue which touched off the political turbulence in the first place back in November 2013. If their offer of three-way talks over the future economic alignment of Ukraine is once again rejected by the EU as it pursues a winner-take-all policy, the Russians may be expected to reinstate measures to protect their own economy, meaning sharp curtailment of economic cooperation with Ukraine, pushing Ukraine substantially towards default.

If, against all the odds, Ukrainian liberals do succeed in neutralizing the radicals and establishing effective federal control over the entire Ukraine, then the question of managing the sharply differentiated cultural and economic interests of East and West will become timely. And in this context the experience of Belgium may be very relevant.


Many well-meaning folks speak of the need to arrive at a power-sharing solution whereby the two nations now inhabiting the shell of Ukraine might get on peacefully.  As a 30 year resident of Belgium, I have seen the pluses and minuses of power-sharing  as well as the arguments surrounding maintaining unhappy marriages within a single state versus “divorces.”  In this essay I offer some conclusions drawn from the Belgian experience to help guide discussions over Ukraine and its future evolution.

Power-sharing or “consocial” solutions to ethnic, linguistic or other divisions between peoples were an invention of progressive European academicians who pitched them to the political class. Such solutions presuppose the greater ability of educated elites to maintain peaceful political process within an institutionalized allocation of responsibilities between communities than is the case in free-for-all, first past the gate elections among the entire polity that heat up tensions and, it is feared, can give rise to violence.  Though devised in Western Europe to deal with local circumstances, these solutions were also invoked in post-colonial countries in the developing world where artificially drawn national borders created permanent minorities (ethnic, tribal, religious) at the mercy of the majority. Protection of minority interests has been an essential feature of consocial political arrangements.  As an example of what this can mean in practice, in Brussels the 5% of Flemish speakers are given equal representation on the regional governing board with the 95% French speakers.

In the 1980s, within the context of an unfolding succession of constitutional reforms that began twenty years before and has continued to our day, the Kingdom of Belgium became a world-leading pioneer in power-sharing arrangements between the Flemish-speaking northern provinces of Flanders and French-speaking southern provinces of Wallonia plus the Brussels capital region.  The model seemed so successful that it was emulated elsewhere, most famously in the US-imposed political solution for Bosnia-Herzegovina with its warring Croat, Serb and Muslim communities following the Dayton Accords in 1995.

However, the Belgian political crisis of 2007 – 2011 which had as its low point the record 541 days that parliamentarians were unable to form a new federal government,  revealed the ultimate failure of power-sharing as a solution for states with populations that are divided by language, cultural orientation and economic models.  The decisive factor leading to this outcome was the triumph in Flanders of a new separatist party (the New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA) led by the tactically astute and charismatic Bart De Wever. Whereas his predecessors among Flemish separatists, the Vlaams Blok (later the Vlaams Belang) had preached backward looking Romantic Nationalism that was xenophobic and was rejected by the large majority of Flemings as extremist and out of step with united Europe, the N-VA has promoted ‘pocket book’ nationalism, stressing the discrepancy in economic models and aspirations between the North and South of the country , stressing its attachment to the European Union and a Europe of regions rather than big nation states. 

As the N-VA progressively became the leading party in Flanders, the French speaking South was compelled in 2010 to face the possibility, perhaps the likelihood of a divorce, for which they were largely unprepared in terms of identity.  Would Brussels become a ‘free city’ and would Wallonia face merger with France as its only recourse? In fact it took nearly two years for French-speakers to find a new self-awareness in which the Federation of Brussels and Wallonia is their default successor state in case of divorce.

Over the course of decades of reshuffling the power to be shared as the unitary Belgian government became a federal government that progressively devolved powers onto the regions, we have reached the point of no return following the 6th state reform that took the country out of the 2011 deadlock over formation of a cabinet. A break-up may come at any time, particularly if the May 2014 parliamentary elections further amplify N-VA power in the North.  

Looking to Ukraine it is possible to find direct parallels with Belgium’s national consciousness issues and separatism that have ultimately driven power sharing to the wall. Clearly it is the West of the country that has evolved fastest in forming a new self-identity based on integration into Europe. This mythology rests on historical fact: parts of West Ukraine were for lengthy periods part of Poland or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The region is also the home grounds of early Ukrainian militant nationalism that flourished during the Soviet-Polish war of 1921 and again during WWII. It was this part of the country which counted most heavily on the pro-EU policy of the Yanukovich government which went on for the two years leading up to November 2013 when it was abruptly dropped in favor of closer association with Russia.  As the poorer and less industrialized part of the country, it has the least to lose from the economic directives imposed by EU association.

Meanwhile, the Russian-speaking South-East, with its rust-belt industry exporting to Russia and its dependence on cheap gas for its inefficient plant, has the most to lose from EU association. But, like Wallonia in Belgium, it has had no national mythology of its own, no identity with which to oppose the essentially separatist posture of the West. The big challenge facing those who attended the Kharkiv meeting yesterday is to invent a party to represent the interests of their region in parliament and a collective identity that can carry them through a possible split with West Ukraine.


Lest anyone imagine that the failure of power-sharing in Belgium to resolve differences between different peoples inhabiting the same national borders is due to unique circumstances or personalities, let us consider what has happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which benefited from a supportive international community rather than the stresses from opposing suitors that Ukraine faces.  Belgium’s record 541 day inability to form a national government that ended in 2011 was closely followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was unable to form a government from October 2010 to December 2011.


The reasons for the failure of power-sharing may be traced back to its fundamental principles, not merely to the rise of charismatic separatist leaders or stubborn political factions.  As noted above, there is implicit in power-sharing a disdain for genuine democracy and misplaced confidence in the altruism and superior judgment of elites.  Excessive protection for minorities means frustration of the will of the majority which over time leads to cynicism and electoral passivity. When serving as prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, current leader of the Liberal bloc in the European Parliament and candidate for president of the European Council in the upcoming European elections, said famously that Belgium was suffering from a ‘democratic deficit.’ Nothing has happened in the years since his remark to overturn that observation.

Power-sharing means coalition governments where the parties have a common interest in allocating among their followers the spoils of office.  It effectively institutionalizes corruption or incompetence, because there are no whistle-blowers. And it thus results in overpriced cost of government services that deliver very modest substance to the citizenry.

The proof of all this was the civil disturbances we saw in Bosnia-Herzegovina in February, beginning in the city of Tuzla and spreading to the capital, Sarajevo.  Tellingly, the demonstrators denounced their avaricious and corrupt political elites.  Given that this is precisely the outstanding problem facing Ukraine today, it is hard to see how power-sharing between the Eastern and Western halves of the country will help them out.


The greatest lesson of the Belgian experience is that divorce is utterly thinkable and possibly preferable to a bad marriage of peoples which have aspirations, cultural orientation and economies as different as East Ukraine and West Ukraine have today.



              ©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014



                                                                 * * * * *


 G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.