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Extensive rights but limited autonomy

Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 upheld the federal structure of the USSR, the autonomy of the federated units was in practice severely restrained by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The CPSU, in accordance with the marxist-leninist principle of‘democratic centralism,’ made all the important decisions and de facto governed the Soviet Union and its republics (McGarry and O'Leary 2009: 9; Brubaker 1994, 53). Decision-making was centralized in the politburo of this party, and the governmental institutions at the federal level and in the constituent union and autonomous republics merely rubber-stamped and implemented the CPSU’s decisions (McGarry 2018: 536). This CPSU’s centralized decision-making was facilitated by the 1977 Soviet Constitution, which allowed the federal government to usurp regional (republican) prerogatives to whatever degree the Kremlin would think it necessary. The CPSU’s dominance and centralist modus operandi entailed that the federated units (union and autonomous republics) had to exercise their constitutional powers and responsibilities within the changing framework set and reset at will by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As a result, republican (regional) prerogatives hardly ever amounted to anything more than a mere verbal rhetoric - that is, the ’national form’ in Stalin’s 1930 formulation - which subjected all Soviet politics to the ‘socialist content.’

The case of the right to secession is an apt illustration of this situation. The Soviet Constitution of 1977 explicitly guaranteed this right for all the USSR’s union republics. Although the CPSU accepted the right to secession in theory, the Kremlin’s ideologues conceived of this right, in a dialectic way, as an antidote to secession rather than as a genuine possibility, which any republic would ever dare to exercise (Connor 1989: 28). Lenin, for instance, proposed that the formal grant of the right to secession would in fact prevent any exercise of this right. His argument was that state unity emanates from the free will of the nationalities residing in a polity that they treat as their own. Hence, as long as these nationalities feel free to decide their fate, they have no need to consider secession. In the actual Soviet practice, the highly centralized Communist Party of the Soviet Union (as de facto identical with the state and administrative structures of the USSR) resisted any secessionist demands and, when needed, even forcibly suppressed movements of this kind. The most important means to strengthen unity of the state and prevent secessionism was the ever wider and more intensive employment of the ‘all-Soviet progressive socialist language’ of Russian at the expense of the republican languages (Connor 1989: 28; Kaiser 1994: 250-324; McGarry 2018: 537).

Until recently, a similar situation of a highly centralized ruling party dominating all the constituent units of the federation characterized Ethiopia. Although the EPRDF was a coalition of ethnically based parties, this has not led to more autonomous regional decision-making. For better or worse, the EPRDF operated in accordance with the marxist-leninist principle of democratic centralism, entailing that important decisions were made in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa by the leaders of the EPRDF’s four coalition parties, with their ethnic bases in Amhara; Oromia; the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region; and Tigray (Assefa 2015: 251; Bach 2011: 647). As mentioned earlier, the other five regions (states) - that is, Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambela, Harari and Somali - were administered by EPRDF-affiliated regional parties that supported and implemented the EPRDF’s policies.13 As in the Soviet Union, the constituent units of the Ethiopian Federation exercised their constitutionally guaranteed powers and responsibilities within legal and political confines, as determined by the ruling party. The EPRDF drafted and promulgated the Ethiopian Constitution, which emphasizes and espouses the country’s ethnic diversity by granting extensive rights to the recognized ethnic groups (nations, nationalities and peoples). On the other hand, this ruling party strongly resisted and even suppressed the actual exercise of some of these rights.

In particular, the EPRDF hindered any exercise of the right to establish new ethnically based territorial units in the form of either regional states, nationality zones or nationality (special) woredas, let alone in the form of sovereign polities that would actually secede from Ethiopia. Because the EPRDF was in control of all administrative units in the country, it used party channels to prevent or discourage such ethnic demands. In this regard, the EPRDF seemed to share Lenin’s view that the constitutional grant of territorial autonomy is a mechanism for preventing its exercise. Yet given the emphasis on ethnicity in the Ethiopian Constitution, this attitude and practice generated a profound gap between constitutional norm and substance. Until recently, the EPRDF had been able to bridge this gap because of its centralized modus operandi and strong party discipline (i.e. the observance of ‘democratic centralism’). Yet during recent years and particularly after 2018, a serious weakening of party discipline was observed.

As a result, tensions engendered by this mismatch between constitutional theory and practice bubbled to the surface in the form of disturbances and demonstrations (Van der Beken 2018). Against this background, one can interpret the founding of the Prosperity Party (PP) in December 2019. The hope is that the PP will effectively unite the EPRDF's member and affiliated ethnic parties into a single, unified all-Ethiopian multiethnic (multinational) party. It is a clear attempt at de-emphasizing the focus of the country’s legislation and politics on ethnicity, to prevent administrative or even political disintegration along ethnolinguistic lines. However, it is too early to say how these latest developments will influence the situation in Ethiopia. The developments may pit the PP, which is accused of being unitarist, against ethnically-based parties and movements. This is what has actually happened in the case of many Oromo groups, who do not trust the PP and accuse ethnically Oromo Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of ‘betrayal.’ In 2020, this tension erupted in violent protests (including ethnically motivated attacks) that followed the assassination of renowned and charismatic Oromo singer, poet and civil rights activist Hachalu Hundessa (Hacaaluu Hundeessaa in Oromo) (Gardner 2020). Over 230 people lost their lives in the course of these protests and disturbances (Ethiopia Arrests 2020), which is a stark warning that more attention needs to be paid to whether the political system appropriately meets variegated needs of individuals and Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.

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