Nr. 18 – Tombeur, November 2012

Paper no. 18 elaborates on the failures of some Federal systems. Tombeur describes the rise of the United States of Indonesia, which was quickly followed by its fall. The attempts to create Federations in Africa and Eastern Europe befell the same fate. Tombeur explains the causes of these failures so that they may become lessons for our composition of a Federal Europe.

European Federalist Papers © Leo Klinkers & Herbert Tombeur, 2012-2013


Dear Klinkers, several weeks ago I wrote that the core of Federalism means that the Federation (the whole, the bond), and the federated parts (whatever their name, for instance Member States) each operate separately and parallel to each other. Both levels need their own space for policy making in order to make operating independently possible. Within a Federation this space is mutually guaranteed, while the amount of space may differ from Federation to Federation. This double independence presupposes that the various States take care of their own government for their own citizens and that the Federation makes policies representing the common interest of all citizens of all Member States.

It is a matter of fact that a number of Federations, soon after they were established, failed or disappeared – from Indonesia, African and Asian Federations to European Federations, especially Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Some existing Federations reveal tensions, for instance Belgium and Canada. It is interesting for our project regarding a European Federation to know the causes of these failed Federal constructions, how they dissolved and why these tensions existed. One can also learn from worst practices. That is why I am going to shed some light on several of these failures, helping us to avoid making the same mistakes in composing a Federal Europe.

Firstly, I would like to outline the story of Federations that did not work, or barely worked. I will give some causal factors for these failures. One failed attempt at creating a Federation will be dealt with more in-depth: Indonesia. In Paper no. 1 you asked me, while briefly describing the lifespan of the United States of Indonesia, if there were more failed Federations. In answer to this I will describe the rise and fall of two European Federations: Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. In a separate Paper I will elaborate on the flaws in the construction of the Belgium Federation.

As an example of the first group of Federations – those which were planned and even established but did not work or only functioned for a very limited period of time – I will begin with Indonesia. When in 1945 defeated Japan had to end its occupation of the Dutch colony in East Indonesia, a takeover of power was established by the Indonesian resistance on the Western side of Indonesia, associated with a declaration of independence. Dutch attempts at granting Indonesia self-government by adapting the constitution, while keeping the archipelago within the Kingdom, met time and again with resistance. Several agreements failed to prevent the Netherlands from maintaining power over Indonesia by conducting police actions. At the beginning of 1946 the Netherlands proposed the creation of a Federal state of Indonesia and its establishment was initiated.

However, under international pressure – this was the start of the era during which the principle of self-government was written in capitals worldwide – resistance against the Netherlands increased heavily. In 1949 they organized an Inter-Indonesian Conference. Gathered were the centrally governed Republic of Indonesia – established by the Javanese population under the leadership of Sukarno and his followers – along with fifteen other territories, in an attempt to establish the independent Republic of the United States of Indonesia (RUSI). In December 1949 Dutch sovereignty was legally transferred to the RUSI. Soon after that several revolts took place, some led by Sukarno. As a result fifteen territories were absorbed by the Republic Indonesia, and thus were lost to the RUSI. Even though there was resistance in Eastern Indonesia against this abdication, the fight between the legally powered RUSI and the non-legal but factually powered, centrally governed Unitarian Republic of Indonesia, led in August 1950 to the dissolving of the RUSI and its total absorption by the Republic.

The question arises, what causes contributed to this failure to successfully federalize?

Following Japan’s exit, Indonesia did not have a well-established state-structure. As a result, local elites immediately filled that vacuum by resisting the colonizer and erecting a governing body of their own. This would play an important role when they needed to opt for a unitary state versus Federalism, especially in the western part of Indonesia. They did not consider this to be a choice between two forms of stately organizing but between two political profiles: Federalism was identified as pro-Dutch, thus foreign and colonial; a Unitarian state was regarded as autochthonous, national and modern. On the one hand, Federalism had negative connotations: it was associated with an externally imposed form of social living and with the chaos that would threaten territorial integrity, because national identity was fragile due to the large diversity of local and regional cultures. The Republican elite considered these cultures as primitive and feudal, the national identity as modern. On the other hand, there was the association of the Unitarian Republic with the recovered independence, thus with emancipation, which meant that the people favored a Republic.

In other words, Federalism would increase the internal and external threats for the new State and the Unitarian state would decrease those threats by creating unity and stability. The RUSI was not founded on an established and democratic system, nor on a plural society. Moreover, the provisional Federal Constitution stated that representatives of each Member State would not be elected by the people but appointed by the respective governments – of which a majority was against the Federation. This implied that indirectly they established in fact an intergovernmental system that was hostile to a vertical division of power, thus against Federalism. Furthermore, the planned Federation revealed some inequality – it would be (in professional jargon) socially and politically asymmetric: almost half of the Indonesian people consist of Javanese (ca. 42%). In a Federation they could only lose power.

To finalize this case, I would like to quote from the contribution of Thomas Goumeno in the book ‘Defunct Federalisms’, a quote that clearly explains the nucleus of the Indonesian story: “The Indonesian case supports the relevance of the hypotheses which claims that if federalism is externally imposed and lacks consolidated democratic institutions, it is likely to fail. In the Indonesian case, failure was also assisted by the absence of a coherent constitutional framework and the power asymmetry between the Republic and the other federal units.”

This story is not unique. Similar attempts at establishing a Federation on the initiative, or at least the active cooperation, of the former colonizer took place in the first two decades following World War II, only to fail quickly for the same reasons. This happened in Africa with Cameroon and Rhodesia-Nyasaland. Federal Ethiopia-Eritrea also failed, despite intervention by the recently created United Nations. In Pakistan-Bengalen the Britons left the ‘Government of India Act’ with Federal characteristics; that Act became the provisional Constitution. Nevertheless, Pakistan centralized its government without British interference.

What do we learn from these failed attempts at creating a Federation? First of all that externally or top-down imposed Federalism does not work. Certain conditions need to be fulfilled. First there have to be common values and interests as a driving factor for creating a Federation. It is also necessary that political representation is legitimate and that the preparedness to cooperate and demonstrate solidarity is mutual, especially when the Federation encompasses different groups of the population. In all the aforementioned cases two or more of these conditions were lacking.

Back now to Europe, to two Federations that disappeared after a while. One ended in violence, Yugoslavia, the other through political consensus, Czechoslovakia.

The first Constitution of the new Yugoslavia in 1946 was a copy of the Soviet Constitution, except that the Yugoslavian Member States did not have the right to establish an army or follow their own foreign policy. Yugoslavia was built on three levels: the Federal level, the Republican and the administrative level. After Yugoslavia detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1948, it began to combine Communism with Federalism: the ideology had to support Federalism as well as the State, through the basic principle of territorial organization. More specifically, the practice of economic self-government was introduced and furthered by new Constitutions (1953, 1963 and 1974): the Federation became a society of ‘producers’ rather than a society of nationalities. Thus self-government on the level of business units became the essential characteristic of the Federation. Self-control penetrated all forms of public life. As a result, power moved from the center to the periphery, the federated republics.

One of the political leaders promoting the system of self-control, the Slovenian Edvard Kardelj, stated that the Federal government no longer had independent power above society, nor its own identity in society, but increasingly became an instrument of a society organized by self-control. The Communist government remained firmly upright, although stronger in the Member States than within the Federal Government. The institutional anchoring of Federalism was rejected. The Federation lost its constitutional basis and existed only through the policy of the Communist Party and the People’s Army. Next to that Josip Broz, ‘Tito’, continued to promote the organic identity as Yugoslavian, which would be a symbiosis of Republican (member state) identity and a bond with the Yugoslavian state-community. However, local and regional control became stronger and the feeling of Yugoslavian kinship grew weaker.

During the 1980s, after Tito’s death, the process of defederalization increased speed. The Republican elites were only interested in their own member state, even at the cost of the other Republics and the Federation. They increasingly became competitors.

The Yugoslavian Republic collapsed soon after the implosion of the Soviet Union and the East Block, although this may have been only a provocation, not the real cause. Violence between the Yugoslavian Republics erupted due to their borders not coinciding with the various ethnic groups.

In a previous Paper I mentioned the Dutch proposal to change the Republican (and other) internal borders of Yugoslavia. This was rejected by the other EU-countries. In my view a capital mistake, which led to thousands of deaths in Yugoslavia; the conflict endures to the present day, not only in the hearts and minds of the people, but also in the policies and structures, for instance in the artificial State of Bosnia-Herzegovina. That State exists thanks to the occupation and guardianship of the international community. I wonder why before and after the war in Yugoslavia not one European politician stepped forward to organize a political Balkan-Conference.

How can this failure be explained?

For the sake of the relevance to Europe I confine myself to the following elements. First, it is noticeable that there was no coherence between political practice and the organization of the State: Federal institutions were there only to support the party programs, not for developing solutions for conflicts. When a conflict arose, it was dealt with by external powers. The Constitution aimed more at creating an ideal order – which never came – than at dealing with the political situation in Yugoslavia. Everything was concentrated on maximizing power, not on constructing a State that would provide solutions for conflicts in the long term. The following sentence from the contribution by Matt MacCullock and Silvia Susnjic in the book ‘Defunct Federalisms’ summarizes the explanation of the Yugoslavian drama in a nutshell: “In this respect, the case of Yugoslavia seems to suggest that it is both the imposition of federalism compounded by the failure to devise a single conceptualization for the ideational framework of the state that contributed to the eventual collapse of the federal project.”

What do we learn from this? That Federalism requires both a constitutional and an institutional organization, at least formulating a clear division of power between the Federal body and the powers of the Member States; and a regulation to deal with conflicts. The Yugoslavian Constitution lacked these agreements, despite its four hundred articles. Moreover, the Federal level was undermined by the exclusive organization of self-control on a level below the Federal level. Thus there was no chance for the Federal level to develop integrating dynamics on a national level.

Czechoslovakia formally became a Federation in 1969. By law, the country was divided into two socialist Republics. Each Republic boasted its own parliament (national council) and a government; for the whole country a Federal parliament (Assembly) came into being, consisting of two Chambers and a Federal executive branch. However, the most important political power was unchangeably divided between a Czechoslovakian Communist Party and a Slovakian Communist Party. The first was in charge of taking the primary decisions with respect to law-making and policy-execution.

As of 1969 the lifestyle and values of all inhabitants became comparable, despite their national identity. This had to do with a considerable mobility between both communities: based on a research in 1990 57% of the Slovakian population declared that they had Czech friends, 31% Czech-kinships, while the Czech declared that 23% had Slovakian friends and 45% kinships. Around that time, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Czechoslovakia for the first time became both a Federation and a democracy.

Notwithstanding this picture of a rather integrated society, the result of the 1992 elections strengthened two non-comparable views about the organization of a State. These visions were supported by the largest party of each community, both equally strong. What was the unbridgeable difference between both visions? The primary difference was the matter of whether the Federation was built from the bottom up or top down. The first opinion implied that the constitutive, federated parts of the country delegated some of their powers upwards to the Federation. The second opinion implied that the Federation delegated some powers downwards to the Member Parts. The Slovakian leader Vladimir Meciar defended the first opinion, claiming sovereignty for the Member Parts in a communal State. The Czech leader Václav Klaus could not accept this point of view; in his opinion it was a hybrid system. Immediately he distanced himself from Federalism and began to talk with Meciar about dividing the country into two parts. On Januari 1st, 1993 the federal Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and transformed into two States.

Thus far we have heard the facts. Again we have to face some questions about the causes of this failing Federation.

The first thesis is that Federalism as a State model was repeatedly used not as a goal in itself, but as an instrument for political purposes which had nothing to do with the right of self-government by the citizens. Even though it appeared on several occasions that they considered the concept of Federalization important, the instrumental application of Federalism led to half-hearted policy measures. Obstacles for streamlining a layered identity were attacked only politically, not institutionally, and were therefore only occasionally solved, temporarily. Thus, tensions by and perceptions of Federal defects remained in place. Apparently, their approach was hindered by the fundamental myths – stories about founding the nation, an old story for the Czechs, a recent one for the Slovakians; the Czechs saw the Slovaks as ‘younger brothers’ who had to be inaugurated, thus patronized. These myths stood in the way of developing a Federal identity. The different histories of both communities, although not antagonistic to each other – enmity existed between Slovakians and Hungarians – led to the perception of inequality between each state. This mutual perception of being unequal only increased with the establishment of the State: the Czechs did not see a difference between their own identity and the Czechoslovakian nationality, the Slovakians did. But also the asymmetric organization of the Federation fueled this feeling of inequality: the Slovakians were dealt with differently, at first politically during the Communist regime, with their own party, afterwards institutionally; according to the Czechs these were privileges; however, the Slovakians did not perceive them as such.

Again this is a case where we have to conclude that Federalism has not been applied as a goal in itself for the sake of creating added value for federating groups, but as an instrument to achieve other political goals. This may have also been the cause of this failure. The institutionally unequal treatment of both communities may have played a role as well, namely the establishment of a Federation – necessary according to the Slovakians but superfluous according to the Czechs – thus in their perception a privilege for the Slovakians. Thirdly there was no regulation, as had been the case in Yugoslavia, for solving conflicts; probably because both countries were ruled under dictatorial one-party regimes. Such a ruling was considered superfluous, as in the first and only place the Communist party represented the State. Finally, the sudden openness and unique emancipation of political life in Czechoslovakia, a situation that both communities had never encountered before, may have contributed to the break-up of the country into two separate states. A process of democratization that entailed that the restraint attitude towards changing political borders was released in this case, contrary to the conservative attitude with respect to borders that can be noticed elsewhere in the world.

In short, both communities would not have envisaged in these circumstances that the Federal identity could be a chance for a moral, cultural and political upgrading of their respective national identities. The assessment of that added value would not necessarily be the same for each community. Communities can indeed have different reasons for creating a Federation. However, a communal insight in the added value of Federalism is necessary.

Jan Ruzicka and Kamilla Stullerova articulate very well the failure of Federalism when it is being used as a means and not as a goal in itself. They state in ‘Defunct Federalisms’ – a matter that not only applies to the case of Czechoslovakia but also to the other aforementioned cases, and to Belgium, about which I will write a the next Paper: “The instrumental function of Czechoslovak federalism, as identified in this chapter, is precisely a case of federalism that was, time and again, used as the means towards other political ends. It was never understood as a good in its own right.”

This case, and others, appear to show that the success of Federalism depends on the clarity in which it describes its contribution to political freedom, democratic responsibility, economic competitiveness, as well as cultural richness. To clarify this added value, apparently a sufficiently long period of debate is needed. I cannot stress this aspect firmly enough: creating a Federation requires a public, widely supported debate in society. Maybe public conferences and referenda about a European Federation should be organized. What do you think about that, dear Klinkers?