Igor Okunev: Federalism, autonomy and conflict resolution

Introducing Igor Okunev

Igor Okunev (St. Petersburg, 1986) holds the Russian nationality and graduated in Intercultural Communication (MA) at St. Petersburg University. Currently, he is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the Moscow Institute of International Relations. Moreover, Mr Okunev is President of the Student Department of the Russian Political Science Association.

This interview addresses the role that federational structures can play in the management of conflicts. In another interview, Mr Okunev talks about current trends in Russian geopolitics. What are the leading schools of thought? Which global issues dominate the intellectual debate? What views on Russia’s global position are most popular?


Federalism defined and its conflict resolution potential

How would you define federalism?

Let us look at the most typical approach to federalism definition which is based on the principle of the regions’ status. By this approach a federative state is a state, all sub-national entities of which are autonomies, while a unitary one can consist of just administrative units. This approach can be easily refuted first by the fact that there are some unitary states that consist of autonomies, like in Spain, Italy, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea, and second, there are federations that contains also administrative units, for example: District of Columbia in the United States, Brazilian Federal District in Brazil, six Union Territories in India, etc.

Therefore, as we see, this approach does not provide enough ground for precise definition. From my point of view another approach, based on the principle of co-relation of levels of the political map, could be more effective. In a unitary state a central authority determines administrative division, it composition and status of regions. A federative state is opposed to the unitary one. Regions (regional authority) within a federative state form the state (central authority) by delegating part of its authority to the center.

Federalism could be defined from the wider perspective as well. It is the principle (or even a philosophy) of social, political or territorial structure, in which entities of a lower level determine an entity of a higher level.

Why makes federalism in general a suitable tool for solving territorial conflicts?

Federalization appears to be one of the most effective methods for conflict management. It is possible to make out several ways of this method implementation. The first one is a decentralization of a state. This is the policy that is being pursued, for example, by present-day Italy and Spain, since they try to prevent probable conflicts in the Basque Provinces, Catalonia, Galicia, Andalusia, and Piedmont, Lombardy, Sardinia and Sicily respectively. The same mechanism serves as a basis for the international plan of conflict settlement in Sudan, according to which restless Azalea and Darfur are supposed to be granted autonomy under the total federalization of the country. The same scheme was proposed for conflicts settlement in the former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan.

The second mechanism is centralization on the federalism basis of a state which is about to collapse, that practically very often results in the emergence of numerous conflicts. The examples of such type of federalization put into practice are the Comoro Islands and recent plans for integrity preserving in Iraq, Ethiopia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The third mechanism supposes integration of several conflicting territories into a united federal state. It was that very mechanism that the world community chose as a solution for Cyprus situation. It would be wrong to say that the experience of federalization has always had a positive consequence, however the majority of such failures as, say, in Sudan or Myanmar were caused not by the inability of federative mechanisms, but by the authorities unwilling to provide a state with strong federalism system.

It is necessary to emphasize that a complicated system of international relations and the high level of democracy make political scientists and diplomats elaborate no less sophisticated and more and more asymmetric many-stage schemes of political and territorial structure, which surely should be based on the philosophy of federalism.

Forms of federalism, federal structures and conflict governance

What are “light” forms of federalism and what are their specific advantages in terms of conflict resolution?

Till now federalism has mainly been “prescribed” to states only in two cases: when a state had got multinational population (lived in the regions of compact settlement) and when a state was formed by means of uniting historically independent territories. Nowadays we face the process of breaking the limits of allowable federalization. The key characteristic, which limits the tendency of a state to take a federal form appears to be its regional asymmetry in its wide sense. In other words those states which have got the considerable proportion of regional asymmetry can tend to a federal form of state.

The regional asymmetry can be of several types (a federal state is usually a combination of some of them) and the most typical ones are the following: geographical, historical, ethnic, linguistic, religious, economic and socio-political. So with the regional asymmetry as a key characteristic, limiting the tendency of a state to take a federal form (which should be aimed at overcoming this asymmetry) considerably extends the number of states potentially favorable to federalism, and correspondingly strengthen its peacemaking potential.

A change for “light” forms of federalism, which implies the inconsiderable decentralization of the states, having non critical regional asymmetry can be very effective in conflict preventing. Such scenario is quite possible for Ukraine and China for example.

Could you give some examples of complicated federal structures and explain how they can assist in containing a territorial conflict?

The strengthening of potential of federalization as an instrument for present-day conflict management can be realized by the use of complicated schemes of federalization, being put into effect at all levels of the political map. Until now the federalism has been regarded mostly as a characteristic peculiar to state only, however if a federal state is a state where its sub-national entities form the central authority by passing some part of their powers to it, that is, the lower level of the political map determines the upper one, it would be quite logical to suppose that the federalism can develop at some other levels of the political map.

Thus, the formation of a federal region, formed by the second level sub-national entities is quite possible (there have been some federalization projects of this type concerning Dagestan as a part of Russia and Muslim-Croatian Federation as a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina). At the same time the formation of a supranational entity, formed by its constituent states and based on the major principles of federalism is possible as well (the structure the European Union’s Mediterranean Union and the Eastern Partnership illustrate this scheme to some extent).

The “sub-national entity-federation” model could be used in the countries with considerable regional asymmetry, where the distinction between ethnic communities can hardly been drawn, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Congo, The Philippines, and Thailand, etc. The creation of some supranational entities based on the federalism principle can serve the first step on the way of conflict settlement between Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia and Georgia, the Transistria and Moldova, the northern and southern Cyprus, Taiwan and China.

Cross-border interregional communities and conflict management

How can the creation of cross-border interregional communities help to reduce the likelihood of a conflict?

One more mechanism for present-day conflict management is the creation of interregional communities, namely supranational entities, formed by regions of different states. Such communities without breaking the principles of inviolability and state sovereignty could provide coordination and development of similar regions. The international community could be easily formed by Kurdish autonomy of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Such a formation observing the legal regulations, determined by the mother countries would promote a more intensive integration of “isolated” Kurdish territories , the creation of the united legislative ground, the development of regional economies, and pacification of Kurds nationalist moods.

One more variant of such a community is the creation of the union of Russian speaking regions, which would include the following territories: Byelorussia. Eastern Ukraine, Transistria, North Kazakhstan. Such a union would promote the settlement of conflicts and realization of people’s interests without breaking the integrity and sovereignty of independent states.

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