Earlier in 2016, the coherence of Ukraine’s reform efforts seemed in danger of being undermined from within. Constitutional reforms on decentralization had been delayed, threatening the start of local self-government reforms. Now, the opposite seems to hold: dynamic local developments substitute for the uneven reform momentum at the center of national politics.
A little-noted fact about Ukraine’s local elections in fall 2015 was that they significantly diversified the local political landscape, in particular in the southeast of the country. Reformist parties that have captured some of the spirit of the 2013–2014 Euromaidan antigovernment protests—such as the president’s Petro Poroshenko Bloc, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, and Self-Reliance, the party of Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi—made significant inroads into local assemblies. Jointly, their vote share was often not far off that of the Opposition Bloc, the successor to the Party of Regions, which had dominated the southeast before the Euromaidan.
At the time, commentary focused on the regained strength of the forces behind the Opposition Bloc rather than the shake-up in everyday local politics. The implications of this political change from below have taken a while to become visible. It remains hard to generalize about the impact of the change, in particular as party structures remain in flux at both the local and the national levels. But across the country, there are plenty of examples now of local dynamism that contrast vividly with the general perception of Ukrainian politics.
A confluence of factors has enabled this local dynamism to take hold. The local elections were held after the Euromaidan, which had already softened Ukraine’s political east-west divide as a result of countrywide dissatisfaction with the corrupt regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych. The war in the eastern Donbas area provided an incentive for neighboring regions to distance themselves from the war and endorse Ukrainian statehood more openly than at any point since the country’s independence in 1991. Last but not least, local self-government has been one of the post-Euromaidan reforms that has advanced furthest, providing a new structure to local political dynamics.
The local government reform aimed to combine democratization with greater efficiency, not least through the voluntary amalgamation of local government units, a local budget base, additional sources of tax revenues (through a local excise and a property tax), and new provisions for local borrowing. In the past, it was not exceptional for local governments to spend all the money they received from the center on administrative staff costs without any room for actual policy spending. Even if the actual tax base is still small, the new budget rules have replaced reliance on central transfers with incentives for strategic planning and control of expenditure. Moreover, the central government provides support for capacity building at the local level, and one of the EU’s biggest support programs is in this area too.
The process is still in its infancy, but there is a widespread perception of change at the local level. Local residents and Ukrainian migrants visiting their towns and regions of origin frequently talk about repaired roads and buildings beyond the central streets, tram services running on schedule, and local authorities being more responsive than before. There is also greater public transparency about voting and decisionmaking in local assemblies, not least through media coverage.
The decommunization laws of 2015 initiated a wide-ranging name change of roads, parks, and landmarks as well as the removal of Soviet-era monuments. The laws have not been without criticism, but the fact is that the physical local landscape is changing too.
Therefore, a process of rethinking and resocializing has begun from below, leading to a different set of expectations and behavioral patterns—and this is ultimately the stuff democratic societies are made of.
There are reasons to worry about the reform commitment at the center of Ukrainian politics. The situation is characterized by deadlock over constitutional reforms; the absence of a firm ruling majority in the parliament, making each reform step a bargaining exercise across parties and factions; and a war that can serve as an excuse to delay or distract from the reforms. In that context, local politics offer a new prospect.
Focusing more attention on the local level of Ukrainian politics in Western policy circles would also usefully counter the personalization of the reform process. Change is currently too narrowly identified with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his entourage.
The big question is whether dynamic local islands can be joined up across the whole of Ukraine to consolidate a change of society from below. This societal change, in turn, would gradually hold national-level elites responsible for delivering on newly formed and articulated expectations.
By far not everything is going well in Ukraine, but local societal and political dynamics are a reason for optimism.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident associate at Carnegie Europe and director of the Center for East European and International Studies in Berlin.