A Post-Imperial Federation: Impossible or Inevitable?

15. 3. 2017

The European Union differs from the post-Soviet space not only because it professes a policy of deep integration and the creation of a common economic and social space. European countries are becoming de facto federations, while in post-Soviet space one may witness all signs of imperial revival.

Empires have always attracted great attention of historians and political philosophers—but, in practice, their ends were always sour. Being based on the principle of a composite state brought together by military force to a greater extent than by economic and cultural ties, they crashed, and the former imperial peripheries built their identity for many decades on the simple and fierce rejection of both the metropolis and the imperial experience. But the upheaval of secessionist forces in contemporary world—both in civilized and violent forms—makes us think once again about what political forms could replace the former empires.


One of the problems of imperial structures has always been the issue of self-government. Empires were formed as a very powerful, authoritarian political entity having a multiple structure, unifying numerous nations or tribes. To keep it intact three factors were needed: greater financial resources, territorial expansion and a constantly growing military capacity. But the problem facing any empire was that the conquest of a certain territory was not enough. Much more significant was to integrate territories economically, politically and culturally. However, it turned out to be an unrealistic task. History has shown at least two reasons for that.

The first one is what American sociologist William Riker describes as “empires became expensive to maintain,” while “federalism is the main alternative to empire as a technique of aggregating large areas under one government.” In other words it is economic and managerial crises: technological and military development made the retention of vast territories by means of hard power impossible; at the same time the technological development simplified political organization and dissemination of information which resulted in the rising importance of regional elites. Thus, to keep them loyal to the metropolis, an empire had to pay too much.

The second reason concerned the process of democratization. Since transit from an empire to any other form of governance is closely connected with this process, a great political will and a balanced economic approach are needed. Otherwise it leads to a collapse of the system.

In all empires their constituent parts were subjugated to imperial center, but seldom influenced the laws and principles of its functioning. Therefore, democracy and freedom were the slogans of all the modern anti-imperial movements— from the American Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. To a large extent this anti-imperial struggle created the modern concept of federalism: several relatively weak proto-states united themselves into a federation to resist the metropolis and/or potential enemies. In fact, this way the United States, Mexico and Brazil were formed, and later, after World War I, Czechoslovakia emerged from the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Federation of this kind also appeared in the course of peoples’ liberation struggle in mid-20th century: these include Nigeria, Malaysia and even the United Arab Emirates. But empires stubbornly resisted any devolution, and eventually provoked revolutions, which put an end to most of the imperial structures. British Empire—the only one that disappeared relatively peacefully—also has not turned into a federation, retaining instead very loose contours of the British Commonwealth. The fate of others was much more dramatic: that were the fields of Dien Bien Phu and Algiers, Bakongo and Niassa where the last European empires, French and Portuguese, disgracefully died.

However in the 20th century a new political reality is appearing—which I would call “imperial federation” (in Russia, some authors call it “expansionist federation.” In “imperial federation” as researchers rightly note the federal principle is used to justify the expansion into to the territories of neighboring states. It seems to me that the concept of “expansionist” narrows the range of what can be considered imperial federation—for example, Yugoslavia, which certainly was a Serbia-centered state, masked by the federal principles, never embarked on an expansionist course. The Soviet Union was more inclined to expansionist actions, but during the Cold War clearly observed the division of spheres of influence, cemented by the Realpolitik. Therefore it was the “imperial” and not “expansionist” character that determined such “federations” as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, or Ethiopia. The idea of inheriting the imperial principles was often hidden in these countries under socialist slogans praising the “friendship between the peoples”—but should the dominant role of the “state-building” nation be called into question, the “imperial federation” came to the point of collapse almost always accompanied by a war. This process, triggered on the global scale by the crisis of the Communist system in late 1980s, has not yet been finished.

Why the fate of complex states in the 20th century was so unenviable? In my opinion it was because they haven’t overcome their imperial nature. Although it was relatively skillfully concealed (as in the Soviet times), it was implicitly felt by everybody—and today it is openly expressed by political leaders. “What was the Soviet Union?” asked Vladimir Putin three years ago, and also answered that it was “the same Russia but only named in a different way.” Because the leaders of empires “renamed” into federations remained prisoners of an imperial worldview, thirty years after the collapse of the last European overseas empire the European continental empires (the Soviet one built around Russia, and Yugoslav one formed around Serbia) also burst. Each of these events caused tens of thousands of casualties, but has taught very little the new elites of newborn countries. Russia crushed its breakaway region of Chechnya in an imperial style, while Serbia was unable to stop the departure of Kosovo and Montenegro. To sum it up, the empires were on the losing side of the political spectrum: from the end of the 18th century and till the beginning of 21st they only retreated, and their centers found themselves in an unenviable (if not humiliating) position.


However, even when losing, the empires had not deserted the place they occupied in the public mind for many generations. Enthusiasm for imperial rhetoric today remains incredibly strong— and it is fueled, as I believe, by the growth of secessionist movements which occur in many regions and which resonate in different parts of the world. The question of what can happen to those countries whose leaders openly talk about the necessity of “renaissance” and “getting up from their knees,” seems so important to me primarily because the largest empire—the history of which is not yet completed—is the Russian Federation.

Russia is definitely a unique empire. It is worth noting that Russia developed as an empire without overseas territories—where within one state a metropolis coexisted with both the settler colony and possessions controlled by military means. Russia had never lost her settler colony— and this was its fundamental difference from Britain, Spain, Portugal or France. That is why the notorious “Russian world,” in contrast to the civilization française, has a deeply etatist nature— and in fact performs a protective function, constantly creating the possibility of imperial revival. It is significant that although the Russian Empire collapsed at the same time the Austro-Hungarian did, it was able to quickly resurface in almost the same borders as before—and even became one of the most powerful states of the 20th century. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia lost the territories that she annexed during both 18th and 19th century, but she retained her major settler colony, Siberia. Even while declaring itself a federation, Russia for the past twenty years gradually recreated a unitary form of government, reducing the powers of the regions and eliminating democratic procedures on the local level. In other words, after a brief “romance” with democratization, Russia has again transformed into an imperial federation—and, considering the way she is doing this (both internally and in its relations with its neighbors), I’m seriously concerned with the fate of my country in the coming decades.

Modern political practices provide some other, much more promising, options for going forward. Problems caused by the desire of various peoples to gain greater autonomy exist not only in Russia. Each of the great imperial nations, before starting its global expansion, had conquered and incorporated the neighboring territories. In the Russian case these were inhabited by the peoples residing on the Volga shores, like Tatars, Mordovians, or Bashkirs; in the English one—by the Welsh and the Scots, in the case of Spain—by the heirs of the Moors in the south, and by Catalans and Basques in the north. In Europe, where the farewell to colonial past, although painful, was not considered “the greatest catastrophe of the past century,” the statesmen are now very attentive to any requirements of the regions claiming greater autonomy.

Over the past thirty years, the Great Britain, the country which is de jure a unitary state, de facto became a “hybrid” political body. The Scottish Parliament, National Assemblies for Wales and the Northern Ireland alongside with the Greater London Assembly (as their executive bodies) have no less authority than many regions in formally federal states. The same applies to Catalonia in Spain, Lombardy and Autonomous Region of Bolzano in Italy. In fact, many European countries have long started to turn into quasi-federations, not even calling themselves as such.

Not so long ago, Fareed Zakaria pointed out that for a society it is much easier to transform to a liberal democracy from liberal autocracy than from illiberal democracy. This is a very profound remark, which indicates that it is much easier to change some formal features if the essential elements of society have already changed— as opposed to the social basis, even if its forms seem quite advanced. The same applies to the policy system. A modern federation is much easier to approach if one moves from formally unitary society that had long ago accepted the principles of devolution, than from a “federation,” where in reality nothing federative could be found. In my opinion, this is happening in Europe today. We witness a formation of a completely new political form, which I call the post-imperial federation. Its value in the future may be so great that it will become Europe’s second most important contribution (after the transnational European integration) to the modern non-violent world of the 21st century.

The success of those voting for a unified Britain, demonstrated in a democratic and free referendum in Scotland on September 18, 2014, the inevitability of a future referendum in Catalonia, the ability of the authorities of European countries to go ahead of events, providing regions with more rights than they are even willing to claim—all this makes me optimistic about the prospects of post-imperial federations. I would say that if the empire wants to keep what was left of it, it must turn into a post-imperial federation— otherwise one can be almost certain that it has no future.


Returning to the dichotomy of imperial and post-imperial federations, I will note that the preference to the first or to the second option today distinguishes Russia (and former Soviet countries in general) from the member-states of the European Union. Inside the post-Soviet space neither the former colonial power (Russia), nor her former possessions (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan) are ready to start the “federalization from above” as it was done in the UK, Spain and Italy. On the contrary, the abolition of autonomous regions in Georgia—a fully meaningless move made in 1990—sparked a war that ultimately led to the loss of both the country’s regions neighboring with Russia. Stubborn unwillingness of the Ukrainian government to recognize the Russian language (used in everyday life by the majority of the country’s citizens) became the pretext for Russia’s unprecedented intervention in Ukraine’s internal affairs—masked as the defense of its “Russian-speaking”population. “Romanization,” with which the first government of independent Moldova was really obsessed, fueled acute protests among the residents of Transnistria, which ultimately made that area a quasi-inde pendent state. As a result the idea of “federalization” is perceived in Russia as a synonym to separatism—the authorities welcome it where they want to undermine the state institutions (in particular, the Russian leaders stubbornly call for “federalization” of Ukraine’s eastern regions), but strongly oppose it where the process is considered dangerous for themselves (one can recall with what sophisticated persistence the power elite discredited and prohibited the “March for the federalization of Siberia” planned by a group of young activists in Novosibirsk for August 17, 2014). The post-Soviet space today does not accept any genuine federalism—and this means that the ongoing process of its disintegration and restructuring is not finished. Unfortunately, in 2014 we saw particularly numerous proofs of this fact.

In contrast, in Europe the Scottish referendum became, in my view, the turning point in the perception of the new federalism. Voting to retain a single country, the British proved that “there are things more important than sovereignty”— especially if the common space of freedom and security, economic progress and common standards of human rights are at stake. In my view, the Spanish government made a mistake prohibiting not only the referendum, but also “popular poll”in Catalonia, since it might show that the pro-independence forces were supported by much smaller number of people than it was expected. In Europe today, there are all the necessary frameworks for organized devolution. It is better to recognize the inevitable path of events and turn it to your advantage than to try to resist the inevitable.

Thus, today the European Union differs from the post-Soviet space not only because it professes a policy of deep integration and the creation of a common economic and social space, while in the former Soviet Union many governments are fostering the strategy of “managed instability.” But also because internally so many European countries (even those that do not formally recognize this fact) are becoming de facto federations—while in post-Soviet space one may witness all signs of imperial revival. In Europe one may see the last act of overcoming the imperial past of former metropolises—and this allows us to hope that the EU will remain for many decades a territory of peace and progress. In contrast, regressive trends inside Russia and its neighbors are gaining momentum so they may lead to a rebirth of imperial federalism—although in this case it will cause not so much a tragedy than a farce.

Yulia Zhuchkova

Junior research fellow in international relations, Tomsk State University (Tomsk, Russian Federation)

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