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The role of Brokerage and Network Clientalism

in Defusing Self-Determination Movements


Sherrill Stroschein


University College London


s.stroschein@ucl.ac.uk


June, 2008


DRAFT: Please do not cite without permission. In particular, the empirical information remains in development and should not be referenced without explicit contact with the author in advance.


This paper examines the forms of control used by the central Ukrainian government to defuse an autonomy movement in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, with an allusion to similar controls exerted to prevent separatism in Crimea. Transcarpathia is a remarkable example of government controls at work. After a December 1991 referendum in which 78 percent of the region approved a proposal for Transcarpathian autonomy, the issue disappeared from the political agenda within the space of a year. Rather than relying on a use of force, the Ukrainian central government exerted controls on regional officials. Regional movements were defused via a brokerage mechanism, in which local officials beholden to the center via patronage utilized local resources to quiet voices demanding autonomy. The dynamics of the brokerage mechanism could be exercized within a particular network control structure. As outlined by recent work on empires in International Relations, a center can exert controls on a periphery via networks that require approval by the center – a hub-and-spoke isomorphic form. An examination of these center-periphery dynamics illustrates that actual control structures within a state may be far more important indicators of the ability to defuse separatist or autonomist movements than the structure of institutions that is the focus of many prior studies.


Ukraine voted for its independence from the Soviet Union in a December 1, 1991 referendum. At the same time, Transcarpathia, a far western county of Ukraine that borders on Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, held a simultaneous referendum for its “autonomous status within Ukraine” – approved by 78 percent of local voters.1 This proposal that Transcarpathia become an autonomous political entity within the structure2 of Ukraine echoed a status like that for Crimea, a Russian-majority territory with recognized autonomy in Ukraine. The autonomy bid in Transcarpathia had multi-ethnic support, as the region hosts a myriad of ethnic groups: Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Russians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Germans, and Roma. The minority who opposed it tended to be ethnic Ukrainians or Russians who had moved to the region under Soviet rule.3

The proposal for autonomy was rooted in a complex history for Transcarpathia, also known as Subcarpathian Ruthenia.4 Until 1920, it was part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.5 With the unravelling of the Empire, it was incorporated into the new Czechoslovak state, as a territory east of Slovakia.6 Less than two decades, later, Adolf Hitler used some of the local disgruntlement over these prior border shifts to his advantage. Following the 1938 Munich agreement that crippled Czechoslovakia, Slovakia voted for independence in March of 1939. The Transcarpathian diet declared independence the same day – an independence that lasted 24 hours before intervention by Hungarian troops. Hungary gained control of much of the region throughout the war, but afterwards was forced to cede it to the Soviet Union.7 This turbulent history of border shifts meant that for many locals, the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Ukraine’s moves toward independence was simply another example of institutions in a state of flux. Transcarpathia’s bid for autonomy in this context is not terribly surprising.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that the new Ukrainian state put forth little public response regarding the Transcarpathian autonomy referendum. No publicly strident declarations were made, no army was mobilized, and the organizers of the referendum were not arrested or persecuted. But the movement effectively came to a halt within the space of a year.

This paper outlines how the central government of the Ukrainian state managed to defuse this movement. A number of political science analyses of separatism and autonomy movements tend to emphasize the particular institutional structures available to or demanded by a group; such as particular structures of autonomy. But studies of whether such structures reduce or inflame conflict have proven rather inconlusive. Here I argue that a processual account of events is far more conducive to a useful analysis of these dynamics. Such an approach enables an examination of the interactive dynamics between center and periphery. In this analysis, brokerage emerges as a relational causal mechanism that defuses conflict. Brokerage takes place within a network control structure that requires approval by the center for any activities. The success of the Ukrainian state in defusing separatist and autonomy movements in Crimea and in Transcarpathia (the focus of the study here) can inform those interested in similar potential conflicts elsewhere.


I. Autonomy’s Inherent Contradictions

“Autonomy” is a vague term within which much can fit. Autonomy is generally understood as a form of self-government that is asymmetrically allocated, meaning that an autonomous unit has more powers relative to other units in a state. For example, while federalism is typically understood as involving a symmetric devolution of powers, autonomy denotes additional powers, usually allocated to a unit with particular ethnic, religious, or historical traits.

The vagueness of the term is one source of its strength as a policy option. Autonomy can grant a degree of self-government to a group or region without conceding independence or sovereignty, allowing concessions to each side.8 It is thus often a favored compromise solution for groups in a conflict: it involves more governing control for minority groups, yet a confirmation of the international integrity of the borders of the state. Autonomous structures were a common feature of the makeup of the Soviet Union, and their legacies live on in the form of several autonomous republics in Russia, as well as the Crimean autonomous unit in Ukraine.

However, the notion of holding a referendum for autonomy or independence emerged as a feature of the heady years of the early 1990s. With the collapse of the institutions of structures and the endorsement of democratization, referenda became viewed as an appropriate means to implement the will of the people through popular vote. Groups that had always resented the state boundaries surrounding them thus occasionally proposed referenda as a means to reconfigure these boundaries.9 Indeed, on December 1 another successful referendum took place in the county of Berehovo, within Transcarpathia, proposing to make the county a Hungarian Autonomous District. Although the Berehovo referendum drew 81 percent support locally,10 it seemed to be quietly ignored by the Ukrainian state in much the same way as it approached the referendum on Transcarpathia. Individuals involved in these events, interviewed years later, expressed that the referenda made sense in a new world of democracy. If the people are to decide how they are ruled, they reasoned, should that not also include their ability to decide to alter the shape of state boundaries around them, or at least diminish their importance via autonomy?

The international community, however, has tended to look with disfavor on attempts to change internationally-state borders, via referenda or other means. This previous stance may be changing, as illustrated with a rather dramatic shift in relation to endorsement of Kosovo’s independence in February 2008. But historically, international law has tended to grant de jure primacy to state borders, regardless of the conditions of de facto control that states might exhibit within those borders.11 Autonomy has long been recognized as a means to preserve these borders while giving concessions to particular groups. As such, autonomy can mean something different to each party in a conflict.

International law has remained rather ambiguous regarding autonomy, due largely to its historical evolution as a concept in the international realm. One source of its ambiguity stems from the fact that self-determination and autonomy have been interpreted by many to mean the same thing. The notion of self-determination, that people should have the right to determine their own affairs, was first used by Woodrow Wilson and by Lenin after World War I. It was then applied to justify anti-colonial struggles for independence, and is reflected in the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 27 – which designates cultural, religious, and linguistic rights for individuals belonging to minority groups.12 These rights are understood to fall short of allowing secession from the larger state.13

Autonomy was explicitly mentioned in the 1990 CSCE / OSCE Copenhagen document, as a potential means to obtain some protections for minority groups under specific circumstances. But the document established no clear recommendations regarding what these might be.14 By 1991, the CSCE / OSCE went even further at its Geneva meeting, stating that issues regarding minorities could be considered independent of the exclusive jurisdiction of states, mentioning autonomy again in a vague way. However, in the 1992 and 1995 documents, autonomy was no longer mentioned.15 Interestingly, these were released after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. As summarized by Jennifer Jackson Preece, the European effort to set standards for minority rights during 1990-95 brought up the notion of autonomy, but ultimately sided with state control over deciding on minority governing structures.16 The strongest effort at the legal legitmation for autonomy took the form of a recommendation to a protocol on human rights that was never in fact adopted, Recommendation 1201.17 In 1999, The Committee of Ministers decided to suspend work on the Recommendation, as it was found to be infeasible “because it contains certain elements (the definition of a national minority, the nature and scope of certain rights, etc.) which do not muster the general support of all member States.”18 This rather schizophrenic approach to the matter simply reflects a broader confusion within the international community.

Autonomy structures may take either territorial or non-territorial forms. Quebec in Canada, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales in the UK,19 South Tyrol in Italy, and the autonomous regions in Spain are examples of territorial forms. However, it may also take non-territorial forms, in which non-territorial units adjudicate matters that may be de-lined from territory, such as matters of language, culture, education, and religion. Belgium’s federal structure, for example, includes both territorial and non-territorial units – each with particular competencies. The territorial units address matters such as economy and transport, while the non-territorial units control matters relating to language, education, culture, and health care. Other examples of non-territorial autonomy appear in Hungary, Russia, and Serbia, as well as in the presence of Shari’a law courts in countries outside of Muslim countries, usually to adjudicate matters of family law.20

Non-territorial autonomy tends to be understood as a means to grant powers to a certain group without the risk of establishing institutions to encourage potential secession. Territorial, autonomy, however, may do just that. Given that it was territorial autonomy that was requested for Transcarpathia, this paper focuses exclusively on territorial forms.21 Given the risks that territorial autonomy might pose for states, a broad debate persists regarding whether its application as a policy option might reduce or in fact inflame conflict. It is to this debate that I now turn.


II. Does Autonomy Reduce Conflict, or Cause It?

For proponents of autonomy as a means to resolve conflicts, the additional control that autonomy grants to minorities should reduce their grievances against the central state. Autonomy for the heavily-Russian Crimean region in Ukraine can be understood as a successful example of such institutions.22 In addition, the establishment of autonomou institutions provides a degree of transparency to the decisionmaking processes of minority groups, facilitating a more information exchange and predictability about their activities. Because many scholars find that low levels of information can foster suspicion and conflict, greater transparency should thus serve to reduce conflict.23 Moreover, without autonomy groups may continue to resent their position in a broader state, perpetuating violent acts until some concessions are granted to them.24

However, the effort to establish autonomy structures may also induce conflict, as groups may mobilize around the issue. Furthermore, once an autonomous structure has been established, it can easily serve as an institutional foundation for separatist movements, as argued by a number of scholars.25 In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, violent conflicts took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s between already-autonomous groups and the central Soviet state as they began to push for full independence. Because autonomous institutions increase group cohesion, organization, capacity, and willingness to act, 26 they can provide a strong foundation for elements wishing to secede.

A quest for territorial autonomy may be particularly conducive to conflict if local groups disagree about whether it should be pursued. This situation is most obvious when members of a formerly dominant or majority group suddenly find themselves faced with the prospect of becoming a minority in the new unit, and separated from their co-ethnics – as in the case of Serbs in Bosnia in 1992 or Kosovo in 1999. Even groups that do not experience these cross-border network dynamics may resist the efforts of another local group to establish autonomous structures, as has been the case with the Tartars in Crimea. There, the codification of territorial autonomy has been opposed by the Tartars, a highly mobilized group, creating tension between them and the region’s dominant Russians.27

The possibility of attaining autonomy may also provide a focal point for groups that would not otherwise display strong levels of mobilization. As Mozaffar and Scarritt observe in their study on African states, elites advancing their own political careers may use the promise of autonomy to mobilize ethnic groups, thus producing conflict. These political ambitious thus mobilize ethnicity through the vehicle of potential autonomy.28 Similar dynamics appeared in the demise of the Soviet Union and have been at work in Russia.29 Whether or not these steps result in violent conflict will often depend upon how the central state responds. As argued by Mozaffar and Scarritt, authoritarian governments, or “hegemonic-control regimes,” often view such claims in a zero-sum context, responding harshly and provoking resistance. However, more pluralist regimes, which they label “hegemonic-exchange regimes” or “polyarchies,” are more likely to approach such demands more pragmatically, a strategy more likely to result in non-violent compromise. Violent conflict may also be more likely under authoritarian regimes because minority groups often fear that extreme action will be the only way to produce a response from such a government.30 To complicate matters, those leaders pushing for autonomy may not have support from all members of their own ethnic group, a situation that may create a destabilizing rift.31

A broad range of empirical studies have attempted to produce general statements regarding whether autonomy structures are correlated with stability or with conflict. However, the overall results have proven inconclusive. A study of institutions in the Former Soviet Union reveals that institutional type is not a clear predictor of whether stability will emerge.32 Even the strongest case for autonomy in a large-N study of civil conflicts shows only a weak relationship between territorial autonomy and the stability of peace settlements.33 One generalization does emerge from a more in-depth study of cases from the Former Soviet Union, as outlined by Henry Hale. Autonomy can produce further separatism in units with “core ethnic regions,” where a statewide minority comprises a local majority enclave.34 But aside from this observation, a strong understanding of autonomy requires an examination of its dynamics on the ground, in order to assess the particular interactions that might produce either conflict or calm.35 This is the task of the following section.

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