Competitors during the 27th Ukrainian Firefighting Championship in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo by Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Barcroft Media/Getty Images.
6. Conclusions: Decentralization’s Impact on Ukraine and Beyond
In spite of numerous conflicts, inconsistencies and imperfections during the initial years of implementation, Ukraine’s decentralization reforms have, since 2015, greatly improved governance at the municipal level. Local resources have been pooled in more sustainable territorial communities, and the parallel implementation of sectoral reforms is under way. Decentralization has contributed to promoting local democracy.
Yet the speed and magnitude of amalgamation have been insufficient to fulfil the initial plans of the reformers. The new phase of decentralization announced in January 2019, moreover, sets the additional goals of radically decreasing the number of rayony and introducing executive committees for self-government bodies in districts and regions. Reforming the territorial structure – in particular at the two subregional (i.e. rayon and local) levels – is vital for ensuring good governance and the administrative cohesion of the state, especially when its territorial integrity keeps being challenged from abroad. This ambitious agenda will be difficult to realize, but it needs to be completed ahead of the October 2020 local elections if a full reconstitution of centre–periphery relations is to be achieved by the end of next year.
Some of the problems encountered during previous decentralization attempts have remained in evidence since the Euromaidan revolution. Reform outcomes are still being determined by the priorities of politicians at the centre, although bottom-up initiatives also play a role. As before, progress is primarily impaired by the resistance of entrenched regional elites to centrally imposed changes. The key difference between previous attempts to implement territorial reforms and the current decentralization drive, however, is the central government’s sharp focus on improving public services rather than merely changing the politics of centre–periphery relations.
Debates on decentralization in the early years of post-communist Ukraine were informed by a notion of ‘Europeanization’ that had come to prominence after the Second World War. The post-Euromaidan elites, in contrast, are better informed about contemporary governance rules in the EU. Still, policymakers in Ukraine have thus far been cautious about providing directly elected regional and subregional councils with the constitutional right to establish executive committees. While policymakers have readily accepted the principle of subsidiarity as a means of advancing local self-government, they hesitate to strengthen regional authority in practice as long as the territorial integrity of the state is challenged by Russia.
Although international technical and financial assistance is important for influencing policy outcomes, the success or failure of reforms such as decentralization remains primarily determined by domestic factors. That said, since the Euromaidan revolution of 2013–14, foreign donors have consolidated their actions in Ukraine, and this has increased the impact of their interventions. Well-coordinated policy advice, technical assistance and financial support from abroad have helped to prevent Ukraine’s government and parliament from neglecting the decentralization agenda.
Ukraine’s decentralization has, moreover, at least four geopolitical dimensions. First, by making the state more efficient, responsive and resilient, decentralization supports the image of the Ukrainian system as a post-Soviet democratic counter-model to the kleptocratic ‘Eurasian’ political template promoted by Russia. Insofar as decentralization helps Ukrainian state-building and nation-building, it indirectly promotes a non-authoritarian path of post-communist development that implies an open society, political pluralism, public participation and Western integration. Ukraine’s reform example may one day become a model for other, still authoritarian, post-Soviet countries or even for entirely different states in other parts of the world.
By devolving power to the municipal level, decentralization deprives Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’ of major entry points for the separation or annexation of regions.
Second, the non-federalist and sub-provincial orientation of Ukraine’s decentralization reforms empowers local rather than regional self-government, thus offering an antidote to Russian-fuelled autonomism and secessionism. By devolving power to the municipal level, decentralization deprives Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’ of major entry points for the separation or annexation of regions. The less power regional or macro-regional capitals have, and the lower the level at which political decision-making is located, the more difficult it becomes to prepare a particular province for a takeover by Russia’s irregular troops, secret infiltrators and local collaborators.
Third, decentralization advances Ukraine’s Europeanization. Being a domestically developed reform, it can be interpreted as demonstrating the country’s inherent ‘Europeanness’. Moreover, this political and social transformation, as with other liberalizing and democratizing reforms, makes the country more similar to other European states where power is already less concentrated. The more Ukraine decentralizes, the more it thus becomes ‘EU-compatible’ in terms of political integration.
Fourth, Ukraine’s non-federalist and sub-provincial decentralization could provide a model for countries that are threatened by (a) regional or macro-regional autonomism and separatism, and/or (b) rapacious neighbouring states eager to exploit territorial cleavages. Decentralization currently helps Ukraine to hold its state together, notwithstanding the situation in separatist-controlled areas. In the future, this method of preventing secessionism could conceivably be applied to other countries. The highly centralized authoritarian post-Soviet states, not least Russia, may eventually also want to devolve power to the local rather than regional level, in order to safeguard themselves against a possible break-up – whether fuelled by inside or outside forces. They could thus decide to follow the Ukrainian decentralization example rather than some older federalist model.
For these four reasons, Ukraine’s decentralization reforms mark a significant political transformation in the post-communist world. Western countries should continue to support the process as generously and intensively as they currently do. Domestic and foreign journalists may want to investigate more deeply its successes, failures and consequences. Researchers on Ukraine and in the fields of comparative decentralization and local governance in other parts of the world may benefit from paying greater attention to the country’s recent experiences.
- Western governments, international organizations and private donors should support Ukraine’s second phase of decentralization (2019–21) as resolutely as they have supported its first.
- Ukraine should decouple the constitutional changes necessary for decentralization from the requirements and implementation of the Minsk Agreements, and adopt the necessary constitutional and other legal changes to proceed with the reforms as soon as possible.
- Parliament should prioritize passing the above-mentioned draft laws Nos. 8051 and 9441, and specify the future functions of self-government at the oblast and rayon levels, in order to avoid chaos in Ukraine’s territorial-administrative structure.
- Policymakers in the central government need to decide soon whether or not to complete amalgamation of communities and rayony before the October 2020 local elections. If the decision is to proceed, then all necessary laws, decrees, resolutions and orders need to be adopted and implemented swiftly.
- While involuntary amalgamation may ultimately be unavoidable to ensure the completion of decentralization, local communities should be involved as much as possible in the planning and conduct of the administrative merger process.
- The Central Electoral Commission should react as quickly as possible to requests by ATCs to reconstitute their governing bodies via snap local elections. The 2018–19 precedent, when 66 ATCs were left waiting for six months to conduct elections, should be avoided.
- For the purposes of legal and conceptual clarity, the newly elected parliament should introduce amendments to existing legislation that explicitly distinguish ATCs from communities that have not yet amalgamated. Also, this distinction should be made clear in the communities’ horizontal communication, cooperation, association and competition.
- State officials of the old rayony who cannot be reappointed in the enlarged districts’ administrations should be encouraged, incentivized and supported to find new employment in ATCs and other local government bodies. International donors could provide support for the retraining of former rayony staff.
- The powers and responsibilities of proposed regional prefects should be clearly defined. Whatever final system of central state supervision of local self-governance is established, it should not have extrajudicial powers to intervene directly into municipal affairs, but should instead take on an advisory function for ATCs.
- A special law regulating the limitation, modification and abolition of ATCs’ legal acts by administrative courts may have to be formulated and adopted.
- Infrastructure investment should, for now, focus on improving the national transportation system as an essential precondition for faster development nationwide.
- To enhance civic engagement in political agenda-setting and decision-making at regional and upper subregional level, civic councils (hromadski rady) should be granted access to the executive committees of oblast and rayon councils as soon as these bodies are established.