Comparing Soviet and Ethiopian constitutional approaches to ethnicity

The TPLF was the major political force behind the overhauling of postcommunist Ethiopia into an ethnic federation. This party was strongly inspired by marxism-leninism and by the Soviet model in general, especially in the field of nationality policy, or the administrative and political management of ethnic (ethnolinguistic) diversity (cf Yordanov 2017: 195). Yet because of its origin as an ethnic liberation movement, the TPLF truly espoused ethnicity, unlike Soviet leaders who accepted it tactically with an eye to the eventual phasing out of ethnicity on the way to ethnic-less and classless communism. That is why the TPLF did not consider the accommodation of ethnicity as a temporary concession. This party genuinely rejected the imperial and - to a degree - Soviet-Derg program of making Ethiopia into a centralized and ethnolinguistically homogenous nation-state. This acknowledgment and respect for ethnic difference is fully reflected in the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution. In its approach to ethnicity, this document was strongly inspired by the TPLF’s views on this matter. Although both the 1977 Soviet Constitution and the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution established ethnoterritorial federations, the latter is conspicuous for its strong emphasis on ethnic diversity.

Initially, the Soviet Union similarly emphasized and embraced the importance of ethnic diversity during the interwar period. This approach resulted in the founding of over 17,000 ethnolinguistically defined autonomous territories in the country (Martin 2001: 10). However, after 1938, this policy was gradually abandoned in favor of lavishing more attention on the unity of the Soviet state as a whole. As a result, many remaining provisions for the Soviet nationalities were rolled back, and even a merger (слияние sli-ianie) of them into a Soviet classless and ethnic-less narod (i.e. ‘nation’ or ‘people’) was postulated (Fundamentals 1963: 676-678). Indeed, the 1977 Soviet Constitution paid more attention to what united all the communist polity’s nationalities and to strategies that would facilitate their stable merger (Shtromas 1978: 267).

With an eye to this goal, the Soviet Constitution evoked the traditional marxist-leninist view on ethnicity, as a societal feature that would gradually wither away, like statehood. In this view, ethnicity (nationalism) and capitalism (alongside its dominant class of bourgeoisie) belonged to the

From Soviet Union to federalism 39 earlier (‘capitalist-bourgeois’) stage of human development. It was to be followed by the transitory stage of socialism with a centrally planned economy and some ethnic diversity remaining, before the acme of human development - that is, the stage of communism could be achieved. In communism, both statehood and ethnicity would already be things of the past, replaced by grassroots organic self-organization and a single united classless and ethnic-less communist people (narod),* which would embrace all humankind, or at least the entire Soviet population (Fundamentals 1963: 698-717). Hence, when in the 1930s the Soviet authorities attempted to hasten this ‘inevitable progress’ from the stage of capitalism to communism, they criminalized this form of economy and ethnicity and denigrated it in the Soviet ideological slurs of ‘national-bourgeois deviation’ (национально-буржуазный уклон natsional’no-burzhuazynyi uklori) and ‘local bourgeois nationalism’ (местный буржуазный национализм mestnyi burzhuaznyi natsionalizm) (Cherednichenko 1985; Fundamentals 1963: 626-630; Kulichenko 1972: 224).

Conversely, the currently obtaining constitutional provisions in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia give ethnicity the primaiy role in the process of state building. The situation is similar to the interwar Soviet authorities’ positive approach to ethnicity. Ethnic diversity was made into the foundation for building and legitimating the administrative division of the Soviet Union during the 1920s and early 1930s. As the foregoing analysis reveals, the Ethiopian Constitution is based on the strong normative assumption that the unity of the state is served best by the full acknowledgment of ethnic diversity. Therefore, the 1995 Constitution made it into the legitimizing basis of the Ethiopian Federation’s institutions and administrative division. This assumption implies that in present-day Ethiopia the accommodation of ethnic diversity is not considered to be a mere temporary expedient. This accepting approach to ethnicity is intended to be genuinely instrumental for achieving the paramount objective of societal and state unity in Ethiopia.

The key role given to ethnic diversity in today’s Ethiopia is visible in the first sentence of the Preamble to the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995. It affirms that the Constitution emanates from the general will of none other than all the country’s ‘nations, nationalities and peoples.’Article 8 explicitly reconfirms that this Constitution is an expression of the sovereignty of Ethiopia’s ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ (Ethiopia - Constitution 1994). In contrast, Article 1 of the Soviet Constitution of 1977 designated the USSR as a state of the ‘whole people,’ while Article 2 provided that ‘All power in the USSR belongs to the people’ (Вся власть в СССР принадлежит народу Vsia vlast’v SSSR prinadlezhit narodu) in singular (Constitution

1977). However, in the Russian-language original Article 1 actually refers to ‘all the country’s nations and nationalities’ (все нации и народности страны vse natsii i narodnosti strany). So in this respect, the similarity with the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 is stronger than suggested by the English translation of the Soviet Constitution (Konstitutsiya 1977).

The Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 also contains references to unity - for instance, the Preamble refers to ‘our [i.e. nations, nationalities and peoples'] common destiny’ and to the necessity of maintaining ‘one economic community’ for the sake of the ‘collective promotion of our interests’ (Ethiopia -Constitution 1994). However, the document does not explicitly aim at homogenization, be it ethnic or social. The 1977 Soviet Constitution, on the other hand, in Article 19, proclaimed the objective of social and ethnic homogeneity would be achieved through, among other methods, the ‘drawing together of all the nations and nationalities of the USSR’ (сближение всех наций и народностей СССР sblizhenie vsekh natsii i narodnostei SSSR) (Constitution 1977; Konstitutsiya 1977), on the way to their merger (sliianie), which was then thought to be imminent.

The centripetal objectives of the Soviet Constitution of 1977 were also strongly evoked in Article 70. It designated the USSR an integral state (единое государство edinoe gosudarstvo) and furthermore stipulated that this polity embodies the state unity of all the Soviet people (олицетворяет государственное единство советского народа olitsetvo-riaet gosudarstvennoe edinstvo sovetskogo naroda) (Constitution 1977; Konstitutsiya 1977). On the contrary, the concept of ‘Ethiopian people’ is noticeably absent from the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution. Another constitutional provision that appears to reflect the genuine commitment of the drafters of the Ethiopian Constitution5 to ethnic diversity is the right to secession, as enshrined in Article 39 (Ethiopia - Constitution 1994). Although the right to secession for all the 15 union republics of the USSR also featured in the 1977 Soviet Constitution (Article 72: 3a каждой союзной республикой сохраняется право свободного выхода из СССР Za kazhdoi soiuznoi respublikoi sokhraniaetsya pravo svobod-nogo vykhoda iz SSSR ‘Each union republic retains the right and liberty of leaving [seceding from]6 the USSR’) (Constitution 1977; Konstitutsiya 1977), it did not seem to be anything more than a mere ritualistic piece of marxist-leninist rhetoric, given the Constitution’s strong emphasis on state and societal unity (Uibopuu 1979: 179, 180). In contrast, not only does the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 grant the right to secession to all the country’s nations, nationalities and peoples (Article 39.1), but it also provides the procedure for exercising this right (Article 39.4) (Ethiopia -Constitution 1994).

Both constitutions established ethnically (ethnolinguistically) defined federated units, be they ‘union republics' in the Soviet Union or ‘states’ (regions) in the Ethiopian Federation. Article 71 of the Soviet Constitution of 1977 provided the list of this communist polity’s 15 ethnically defined union republics (Constitution 1977), while Article 47.1 of the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution lists the country’s nine ethnically based regional states:

  • 1 The State of Tigray
  • 2 The State of Afar
  • 3 The State of Amhara
  • 4 The State of Oromia
  • 5 The State of Somali
  • 6 The State of Benshangul/Gumuz
  • 7 The State of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples
  • 8 The State of the Gambela Peoples
  • 9 The State of the Harari People (Ethiopia - Constitution 1994)7

However, once again, important differences can be observed between both constitutions, clearly showing that the Ethiopian Constitution displays a stronger commitment to protecting and institutionalizing ethnic diversity in the administrative structure of the state. Whereas the Soviet Constitution of 1977 limited the number of ethnoterritorial union republics to 15, the Ethiopian Constitution gave the right to establish a regional state (or a substate autonomous unit) to all the country’s over 80 recognized nations, nationalities and peoples (the list is open-ended) (Summary 2008: 84-85). To this end. Article 47.2 provides that ‘Nations, Nationalities and Peoples within the States enumerated in [Article 47.1] have the right to establish, at any time, their own States’ (Ethiopia - Constitution 1994). The Soviet Constitution of 1977 accepted the then extant 20 autonomous soviet socialist republics (Article 85) and eight autonomous regions (автономная область avtonomnaia oblast’) (Article 87), but did not provide any mechanisms for creating new ones. However, a certain leeway was left in Article 88 on autonomous areas (автономный округ avtonomnyi okrug), because no definitive list of such territories was included in the Constitution (Constitution 1977; Konstitutsiya 1977). As many as ten autonomous okrugs (areas) existed in the late Soviet Union. On the other hand, the 1977 Soviet Constitution somewhat downgraded their status, by changing their designation from ‘national okrug’ (национальный округ natsionalnyi okrug) to a mere ‘autonomous okrug.' In the case of federal Ethiopia, in actual practice, several factors may impede the right of this country’s nations, nationalities and peoples to their own autonomous territories. Among others, these factors include the small population size of a given ethnic group, this group’s insufficient socioeconomic development or a dearth of qualified personnel versed in this group's language. However, the Ethiopian Constitution does not simply pay lip service to the ethnolinguistically defined right of ethnic groups to their own autonomous territory, in that Article 47.3 provides the procedure for exercising this right (Ethiopia - Constitution 1994).

The 1977 Soviet Constitution was characterized by its strong focus on the unity of the state and its citizenry, which was reflected in the distribution of state powers between the federal government and the union republics (Article 73). Federal powers such as ensuring ‘the uniformity of legislative norms throughout the USSR' (обеспечение единства законодательного регулирования на всей территории СССР obespechenie edinstva zakonodatel’nogo regulirovaniia na vsei territorii SSSR) and the ‘establishment of the fundamentals of the legislation of the . . . Union Republics’ (установление основ законодательства . . . союзных республик ustanovlenie osnov zakonodatel 'stva . . . soiuznykh respublik) significantly reduced the empowerment of the nationalities (ethnic groups) for whom the aforesaid union republics had been established. This was even clearer in the federal government’s constitutionally enshrined power to ‘settle other matters of all-union importance’ (решение других вопросов общесоюзного значения reshenie drugikh voprosov obshchesoiuznogo znacheniia) (Constitution 1977; Konstitutsiya 1977). This provision allowed the Kremlin to significantly usurp the prerogatives of union republics (Shtromas 1978: 270). Such open-ended provisions that would de facto subject states to the will of the federal government are nowhere to be found in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995.

As said earlier, both the Soviet and Ethiopian Constitutions established ethnoterritorial federations, in the sense that the federated units are defined in ethnic (ethnolinguistic) terms. The names of all the USSR's 15 union republics referred to specific ethnic groups (nationalities), known in the literature as the ‘titular nations' (nationalities) of these republics (Bmbaker 1994: 52). The same is true for the names of six of Ethiopia’s regional states - that is, Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali and Harari. However, the names of the country’s further two regional states refer to two or more ethnic groups, namely Benishangul-Gumuz and the State of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples. On the other hand, the name of State of the Gambela is a mere geographic indication. Yet even in the case of these three regions with no ethnicity-based names, they are also ethnoterritorial in their character. It is so because these three regions (states) were established to empower not all ethnic groups living within their boundaries but rather specific ethnic groups (‘nations, nationalities and peoples’) that are “indigenous” to their territories.

The main idea of ethnoterritorial federalism is that federated units are established for the sake of empowering specific (titular) ethnic groups (one, two or more). In turn, an ethnic group of this type is able to effectively protect its interests within its own ethnic territory (homeland), or ‘motherland’ in a more emotive language. In other words, federated units constitute a forum where the empowered nations, nationalities and peoples (ethnic groups) exercise different aspects of their right to national self-determination. However, as pointed out earlier, the Soviet Constitution of 1977 limited the number of the fully empowered Soviet ethnic groups (nationalities) to 15. Only these 15 Soviet titular nationalities were permitted to enjoy their ethnolinguistically defined union republics. The other 72 Soviet ethnic groups (nationalities) were given the waning right to autonomous units of increasingly lower administrative statuses, such as autonomous republics, autonomous regions or autonomous areas (okrugs) (cf Constitution 1977: Chapters 10 and 11). To wit, in 1989, 17 nationalities enjoyed their own autonomous republics, while one of these republics, Dagestan, was earmarked for the autonomous republic’s nine indigenous nationalities. Hence, in a broader sense, 26 nationalities had their ‘own’ autonomous republics. What is more, eight nationalities enjoyed autonomous regions, and further eight autonomous areas (okrugs) - hence 16 nationalities in total. Seven recognized non-indigenous and 24 indigenous nationalities did not have any autonomous territories. The 1989 Soviet census covered 87 nationalities (Anderson and Silver 1989: 619-622).

The Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 lists the country’s nine regional states. However, all the recognized ethnic groups (‘nations, nationalities and peoples’) are constitutionally entitled to claim an ethnically defined regional state of their own. A number of ethnic groups have claimed such regions. So far (2020), one new regional state has been formed in Ethiopia. Following the November 2019 referendum on regional status, the Sidamas formed a new state from Sidama Zone within the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region. Almost 99 percent of the voters cast their ballots in favor of a stand-alone Sidama region for the ethnic group of Sidamas. The founding of a State of Sidama may prove a game changer in Ethiopian politics, especially in the area of nationality policy (Ephream Sileshi 2019).

Like the Soviet Union, some of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups are provided with subregional autonomous territorial units. For instance, in Amhara Region, whose name refers to the regionally dominant Amhara people, a few ethnically based autonomous territorial units were founded for minority ethnic groups in their traditional homelands. These include three nationality administrations (zones) (PdlA/flT) h(l+3£C H') yebihëreseb âsitedader zon), namely Agew Awi Zone for the Agaws, Oromia Zone for the Oromos and Wag Hemra Zone for the Himra (Kamyr) subgroup of the Agaws

(Revised 2001: Art. 73). Furthermore, two special nationality woredas (A6 <£¿35D'F liyuyebihêreseb weredawoch) were established for the

Argobbas and the Kemants.8

Another interesting example is the State of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, where ethnically based nationality zones were secured for several ethnic groups. For example, Dawro Zone was founded for the Dawros, Gamo-Gofa Zone for the Gamos and the Gofas, Halaba Zone for the Halabas, Kafa Zone for the Kafas (Kaffichos),9 Konso Zone for the Konsos and Wolayita Zone for the Wolayitas. At the still-lower administrative level, some ethnic groups were granted with their own special (nationality) woredas.10 For instance, Amaro Special Woreda was established for the Amaros, Basketo Special Woreda for the Basketos, Burji Special Woreda for the Burjis, Dirashe Special Woreda for the Dirashes, Konta Special Woreda for the Kontas and Yem Special Woreda for the Yems. The Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 guarantees the identical right to national self-determination for all the country’s recognized ethnic groups (nations, nationalities and peoples). However, in practice, the ethnic groups enjoy different degrees of autonomy, depending on the demographic size and political influence of a given ethnic group. At times, the existence of educated cadres versed in a given ethnic language is also an important consideration. Running an administration and educational system for a given ethnic group in this group’s language is difficult unless the language in question has already been standardized (at least to some degree) and some publications (especially school textbooks) are available in it.

The establishment of numerous ethnically (ethnolinguistically) defined autonomous territorial units in Ethiopia empowers the concerned ethnic groups, which in this manner have been made into the titular groups of their territories. On the other hand, this process has created new majorities and minorities within these autonomous (national) territories, which often opens fresh cleavages between the titular group and members of other ethnic groups (‘minorities’); cleavages that did not exist beforehand. Any administrative and political solution devised and implemented for righting old wrongs tends to generate new types of tensions and divisions. No solution is ideal.