The Trentino Alto-Adige region in Northern Italy, which completed a successful process of regional institutional autonomy during the 1970s, could be a role model for separatist regions of Ukraine.

Supporter of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk during a rally when the flag of the Donetsk People's Army was installed. Photo: RIA Novosti

To understand how a solution to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine might be possible, consider the European example of Trentino Alto-Adige in Northern Italy. The institutional autonomy process for the region, pursued between the 1940s and 1970s, turned out to be a political success despite early concerns that it might be a source of “dissolution” and “weakness” for the Italian Republic. Lessons learned from Trentino Alto-Adige can be applied to the current situation in Ukraine.

The key lesson learned from Trentino Alto-Adige is that a level of autonomy granted at the regional level does not affect the rule of law, national security or the economic and institutional mechanism of the entire nation. It is important, though, that this process be pursued with a balanced and shared approach.

Indeed, as the Italian experience shows, some instabilities, such as politically motivated attacks against institutional bodies and different levels of social unrest, may occur within the short to medium term. However, over the longer term, a constitutional pact helps to defuse these negative externalities. This was the case in Italy, where it helped to de-escalate the regional tensions in Trentino Alto-Adige.

Ukraine is now facing an intricate political challenge, involving the definition of nationhood as well as a resolution of the historical “cultural” identities within the country. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the situation in Italy nearly 40 years earlier.

During the first months of 2014, the Ukrainian political and institutional conflict shifted from the capital Kiev, the site of protests and violent clashes that eventually obliged the former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to flee, to the boundary areas of the country. In Eastern and Southern Ukraine, in areas surrounding Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Odessa, there are cores of the Russian-speaking minority seeking separation from Kiev.

In many places, local militias placed roadblocks, took over and seized institutional buildings and claimed the right to political separation from the central government of Kiev. Not surprisingly, this spreading of political turmoil has raised fears of growing instability, absence of the rule of law, and even the risk of the partition of Ukraine along the borders of the historically known Novorossiya (New Russia) of the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth century.

In this respect, it is reasonable to argue that the earlier the new Ukrainian cabinet will be able to offer real guarantees on equal social, political and institutional status to Russian minorities and promote a more decentralized form of government, the earlier it will obtain a genuine domestic popular legitimacy throughout the country. These guarantees were intended to be among the “initial concrete steps” of the Geneva joint statement of April 2014.

Indeed, according to the Geneva Agreement on the Ukraine crisis, hammered out during negotiations between the representatives of the United States, Russia, Ukraine and European Union, the nature of the new constitutional process to be brought to completion should be “inclusive,” based on a “broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies.”

This language of the Geneva Agreement complements, among other statements, a Ukraine-focused statement of the G7, issued in The Hague on Mar. 24, demanding a “broad-based constitutional reform […] promotion of human rights and respect of national minorities.”

Based on these statements, the process of the restoration of the rule of law and its institutions in Ukraine needs to pass through a wide and balanced national dialogue aimed at establishing a democratic self-determination process within the scope of national identity. Any dialogue that would involve Ukraine keeping its territorial integrity would necessarily overlap both the idea of a strong central power and the rigid division between the different Eastern and Western parts of Ukraine. Essential to this process is the transfer of administrative, economic and legislative competences from the center towards the periphery.

In light of this fluid situation in Ukraine and following the guidelines shared by the international community, more far-reaching steps to defuse the crisis, largely based on a balanced compromise between central power and peripheral regions, are given by the Italian experience with the Trentino Alto-Adige region.

Historically and culturally bounded with the Austrian-Germanic world, Italy’s Trentino Alto-Adige sought a highly autonomous status within the Italian Republic and Constitution. The process of deriving this status shows the value of reaching an agreement based on a high level of autonomy on political, economic and cultural issues. Such status must be granted through codification within the central state’s body of law. Only this approach will ease the institutional balance between the center and periphery, defusing, in the medium-long term, potentially disruptive political unrest.

The Trentino Alto-Adige was the bone of contention between the newborn Italian Republic and the Republic of Austria at the end of WWII. The Paris Agreement, signed in 1947 between the two Prime Ministers, Mr. Alcide De Gasperi from Italy and Mr. Karl Gruber from Austria, should be considered the first step of a longer negotiation process lasting until 1972. This was a crucial moment for the peace process in the region. It recognized equal rights to all citizens despite their language, as well as a balanced decentralization of administrative, legislative, executive and economic competences to be exercised autonomously over the regional territory.

This autonomy was strengthened over the decades, fostering the ties between the central state authority and the peripheral regional authority. The state, invoking its authority, voluntarily granted the transfer of the law-making process to the periphery, which was guaranteed the exercise of its legislative competences.

The autonomous management of most financial revenues and raw materials, as well as the freedom to keep special trade relations with Austria (before the Schengen Agreement on European Community borders), was a fundamental step to build up confidence and economic development, while taking advantage of linguistic and social ties beyond national state borders.

Even if after the agreement, far-right nationalist terrorism and social unrest entailed a constant revision and re-negotiation of the crisis-defusing process, the path of integration has to be considered stable. Moreover, never has the institutional status of this region represented a threat to the territorial integrity of the Italian Republic.

The mechanism established to give such a special status for the Trentino Alto-Adige region within the framework of the Italian Constitution and national territorial integrity, could be transferred to the Southern and Eastern Ukraine regions of Ukraine with large Russian-speaking communities.

Here is what would be needed: The combination of an effective sharing of national and international economic resources; political and institutional proposals guaranteeing real power-sharing and involvement in the national decision-making process; and equal status for all the ethnic and linguistic minorities within the country (despite their potential link to international sponsors). All of these would comprise an important step towards a far-reaching agreement among all the domestic actors involved.

Furthermore, keeping a short-term perspective, such a path would be the key to implementing the pivotal provisions of the Geneva Agreement and de-escalating tensions with the assistance of all the parties to this deal.

Stabilizing the rule of law through an honest and matching dialogue with national ethnic and linguistic minorities, the new Ukrainian government should pursue a constructive discussion on the decentralization of political and economic power. Doing so, the government should take advantage of the forthcoming elections and the new institution-making process within the country.

Trentino Alto-Adige’s integration-through-decentralization process into the Italian national identity shows how a widely-shared process and agreement recognizing a high level of institutional autonomy (despite some negative externalities in the short-term) would lead, in a medium-to-long term perspective, to constructive and balanced power sharing, stability and economic development.

Acknowledgement: Prof. Maurizio Martellini would like to thank the former Italian Ambassador at the OSCE, Mr. Mario Sica, who has been a source of inspiration for this paper.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.