Ukraine has been an over-centralised state since its independence from the Soviet Union, but now the notion of “decentralisation” has taken hold in even tiny villages.

Ukraine after a year of changes: 

Almost every international guest arrives in Kyiv. It is not very difficult to find counterparts to discuss the political and economic situation there: government officials, bureaucrats, parliamentarians (from all camps), advisers, NGOs, business, interest-groups, foreign-workers, foreign advisers, ambassadors, European monitors – they are all present. There is an abundance to choose and everyone has a slightly different perspective.

While this may be convenient, it is also problematic. Ukraine has been an over-centralised state since its independence from the Soviet Union and the capital has absorbed most political and administrative functions in the country.  Kyiv is a different “political biosphere” to the rest of the country.

Kyiv is a different “political biosphere” to the rest of the country

The struggle for reforms there is well known. The old bureaucracy, dependent on the old rules for its privileges, is creative in inventing obstacles to proposed laws or dragging their feet in the debate. The more embedded these interests are, the harder they resist change. It is those who have little embedded interest in the old system – the younger generation, entrepreneurs, people with a foreign background - who are reform-minded. Whether it is the “Euro Optimist Group” in the Rada or the many watchdog organisations, it is the young, optimistic intellectual and entrepreneurial class that pushes for reform.

Will they succeed? This is difficult to tell but they will not fail like they did in 2004 for a number of reasons. Firstly the consequences of failure are much more dramatic. As Russia visibly slides into despotism, the “other option” is becoming increasingly more frightening and repelling. There is no chance that any political actor might sell an “Eurasian option” to the public. Secondly, the pro-reform camp is much better organised than in 2004 and knows that it needs to keep up pressure on the government on all levels. Thirdly, the war dwarfs all other issues in drama and hardship. Hardship caused by reforms will not be that much of an issue. And the war has united society – there is no division in society that the anti-reformists can exploit. And fourth, the reformist camp grows demographically.

The biggest danger to reforms – from Kyiv’s point of view – is not a counter-reformist backlash, but half-heartedness

But once one leaves the Kyivan biosphere, there are more reasons to be optimistic about Ukraine. It is incredible how much the notion of “decentralisation” has taken hold in even tiny villages. Until now, local and regional governments could decide nothing on their own: even building permissions had to be approved in Kyiv but today local officials are eager to take community life into their own hands. A small share of government taxes is already directly put into local community budgets, and local administrations can make use of them according to their preferences. Before that, they could only implement plans devised in Kyiv.

And according to the government’s decentralisation plans, the communities will get additional powers in healthcare and other public services. Local authorities are very interested in Western experience in this transition, and many have engaged in partnership programmes with Polish or Baltic communities to learn more about it. And this advice is needed indeed.

On healthcare reforms, Ukraine will introduce healthcare insurance and patients will be able to choose between doctors and insurance policies for the first time. Until now Ukraine had a state-run health service with centralised polyclinics, a system which was highly corrupt and inefficient. But local healthcare authorities have little to no knowledge about how a self-administrating insurance-based system works. Generally there is little management-experience amongst the medical staff. Local doctors have no experiences in the legal and administrative issues that come with a system of healthcare insurances. Likewise the head of a hospital was – until now – only the disciplinary head of the doctors he supervised. He never could decide on how many staff members each department should have, how to properly administer the medical stocks in accordance with insurance rules, and to make long-term investment plans regarding the overhaul of the hospital’s equipment. Even the contingents for disinfecting agents and toilet paper were decided upon in Kyiv. Now there is a huge demand for management training.

...there is little to no advice from the European Union to local authorities. Advisers pile up in Kyiv, but the regions are left alone

Given the enormous tasks ahead for local administrations, it is surprising that there is little to no advice from the European Union to local authorities. Advisers pile up in Kyiv, but the regions are left alone. Germany is the only European country to have a consul in Dnipropetrovsk who is very active and Poland invites Ukrainian local authorities for training. But that’s about it. After 25 years of centralised government, most of the skilled administrative personnel are centred in Kyiv. And the regions deal with the situation differently. While in Kharkov the local government is in ‘waiting mode’ and blames Kyiv once in a while, in Dnipropetrovsk the oblast administration is eager to benefit from decentralisation, already drafting work plans and projects.

The allocation of funds to local authorities has given a new impetus to local politics. Before, campaigns for the city council were either about personalities or identity – or both – because there was nothing else to dispute about in local elections. Now, real issues are on the table over the allocation of funds or the restructuring of local authorities. However, few people know about the local authorities' new competences and local authorities are often not held accountable for whatever they misspend.

There will be diverse developments across the regions after decentralisation and administrative reforms. Some regions will do better, because they have a dynamic leadership and are eager to capitalise, other regions will do worse. But in the long run, decentralisation reforms will further stabilise westernisation in Ukraine because they create new stakeholders in Ukraine's new course. Now the periphery really loses something if things in Kyiv go wrong.

 

Read more on: Wider Europe, EaP, Ukraine

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.