November 21, 2020
Decentralization, more transparency, and new people in politics are some of the results Ukraine reaped after the Euromaidan revolution. Ukraine has implemented half of the opportunities provided by the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement; is the time coming to consider a new, more powerful agreement?
The 16th annual conference by Kyiv Dialogue, an independent German-Ukrainian platform for intensified dialogue between the countries, was held online on 2-3 November 2020. The conference was dedicated to the consequences of the Euromaidan Revolution seven years on, as well as ongoing political transformations in Ukraine. Local elections, completion of decentralization reform as well as the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU were the main topics discussed.
Decentralization: Ukraine’s major achievement
The conference’s key speaker was Georg Milbradt, an authorized representative of the German government for decentralization reform in Ukraine, who inspired participants by his unbreakable optimism about Ukraine. Milbradt shared his vision of the country: “Develop into a socially, politically and economically successful country that can be a model for its neighbours. If we manage to impress the Russian population by a successful Ukraine, the government in Moscow will not last long.”
Milbradt considered the reform of decentralization one of the most successful in Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity and also noted that Ukraine managed to implement decentralization very fast compared to its neighbors.
After the Soviet period, Ukraine had a heavily centralized system of public administration. Rural municipalities were numerous and fragmented but had little authority and power. At the same time, the financial system was very centralized. It was necessary to create larger communities that could support themselves and give them additional powers. Only after the Revolution of Dignity did this really begin.
Overall, the local communities had five years to voluntarily form new enlarged municipalities with broader authority. As of 2019, more than 50% of Ukrainians in villages and small towns were using this option and creating their new municipalities.
The 2020 local elections and Zelenskyy’s new central authorities who organized the elections had the task of completing the reform. New enlarged municipalities were created by force on the remaining territories where people had not managed to unite themselves into new communities over the past five years.
Ukraine’s political parties are still more PR projects than real parties
Ukraine’s poorly organized party system, with parties as short-lived PR projects rather than real entities based on ideologies, was probably the main shortcoming in Ukraine’s political system mentioned by the speakers. Although in the post-Maidan era Ukraine has reformed and made public party financing, real policy-driven, long-term parties are yet to be formed.
Mr. Milbradt noted that the presidential Servant of the People party had a rapid birth. It is not a classic party: it had few representatives on the ground and therefore had little understanding of what decentralization should result in. It is not a surprise that in the local elections they suffered a crushing defeat.
A year earlier, people had too high expectations of Zelenskyy and his party during his victory in the national elections: “These goals were too high from the beginning and they could not be achieved. On the other hand, the new team are amateurs, as well as individuals from the old structures. The faction of Servants of the People is very heterogeneous, which is not at all surprising given the way it originated. Also problematic is the fact that when part of MPs from the Servants of the People party lack votes, they seek a situational coalition with pro-Russian forces in parliament.”
Andriy Andrushkiv, Executive Director of the Centre of United Actions, analyzed the party programs and party organizations in Ukraine. He also noted the poor party structure and PR in the center of communication of key Ukrainian political parties. This results in weak and often irrational political debates.
Andrushkiv noted that in some cases parties proposed identical programs for village municipalities, cities, and entire regions which were nonsense, signaling the absence of high-quality discussion. “The discussion is sometimes on the level: ‘Yeah, you’re a thief… And you’re a big thief… You have such a biography… And you have such a biography.’ Not about how the community will develop.”
In many cases, open populism is present. Candidates for local governments are already promising the central government a demarche. They even promise to cancel health care reform or introduce a second language in education in the region, which is unconstitutional. There are many such stories.
All this phenomenon of weak party culture explains why there is a low turnout of only 37% in the local elections. People often do not understand the competencies of local authorities and consequently why they should vote. There is essentially no discussion, so communities do not understand exactly how to participate and what is the role.
Euromaidan brought more new people into politics, fostering transparency
“Concentration of access to resources was broken, more people and more communities were able to participate in politics and conduct reforms. This answers the question of whether it became possible to form a government using new bottom-up social lifts,” said Yulia Hvozdovych, representative in the Lviv city council from the Ukrainian Galician party.
She also noted that after the reforms conducted since 2014, it became possible for local communities to better control the government through various tools of public participation: participation in public councils, electronic petitions, the participatory budget, openness of the municipal council, the mandatory publication of all draft decisions, etc. The transparency of all processes has increased, in particular thanks to legal norms of access to public information.
Yelyzaveta Yasko, MP from the Servant of the People party and head of the Ukrainian delegation to PACE, also shared optimism regarding new social lifts. She too noted that Ukrainians are very radical in their protests against injustice, as was evidenced during the two revolutions of 2004 and 2014 as well as by the public reaction to the latest decision of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine which canceled important achievements in anti-corruption reform.
“Therefore, I do not believe that Ukraine can fully return to Yanukovych’s time, although to some extent such a danger exists. Ukrainians are a very democratic nation, ready to go to the squares. The level of activity and communication has increased dramatically after 2014,” concluded Yasko.
Mr. Milbradt also noted that mentality shifts are taking place as well. Many no longer believe that only the higher levels of authority are responsible for enacting positive changes. At the same time, full transformation requires patience and time since we have to deal with humans, not machines.
Large parties tried to hijack local elections by changing the rules at the last moment
After the decentralization reform, the representation in local authorities became no less important than participation in central government. The 2020 elections were the first to be conducted according to the new election code with an open party list, as well as the first local elections where new district and municipal councils were elected with a new, much broader level of competency.
Yet according to Olha Aivazovska, Chairperson of the Board of the OPORA Civil Network responsible for the monitoring of elections, in contravention of international norms the Ukrainian parliament, where Servant of the People constitutes a majority, changed election rules just two months before the elections, limiting the right to nominate candidates solely to political parties.
“We encountered usurpation, monopolization of the right to nominate representatives to local councils in all municipalities bigger than 10,000 voters by political parties. That is, competition between parties and other organizations was not ensured. And this caused all the following problems. In the absence of proper party structures, local leaders simply had to look for legal entities that could nominate them. Such an obligatory form was in the electoral legislation adopted before the elections. In fact, two months before the election, everyone had to adjust to the new requirements of the election code.”
In fact, this system was used by financial groups that could influence or control parties, impeding independent non-party local leaders from being nominated. This is especially true for small communities, where there is a lot of land and resources and few voters who could be easily influenced, manipulated, or directly “bought” (for example, local agricultural business groups and village municipalities).
Yulia Hvozdovych also supported this statement, noting that local elections are elections of local elites, not elections of ideologies or parties. The current election was a party election. Therefore, it was quite difficult for smaller parties and activists to overcome the election quota.
Rebecca Harms, former European Parliament MP, also said that all international observers agree that it is unacceptable for people to vote in accordance with amendments to the code that were adopted in the run-up to the election. She also noted that Servant of the People is not a party but just a movement that breaks down into different segments, although other Ukrainian parties also share this trend in part.
Time for new, more powerful agreements
Ukraine would like to see more from the EU, in particular a membership perspective. And the EU would also like to see faster reforms in Ukraine. Yet despite partial disenchantment at first glance, the dynamic is positive, and Ukraine has already implemented half of the opportunities provided in the 2014 association agreement. The time is coming to consider new, more powerful agreements, noted Oleksandr Sushko, executive director of the International Renaissance Foundation.
He noted that the agreement provides good tools for bringing Ukraine closer to EU integration. The agreement is also flexible, allowing Ukraine to adjust priorities and plans. Ukraine should prioritize those areas that would allow it to develop the most and not those areas that the government would like to develop by inertia.
“Today we have a very interesting experiment. We are at the heart of this experiment. The association agreement has exhausted half of its resources. Actually, it was designed for 10 years. I think the agreement has already done a good part of the work. We must work to make full use of its potential. But at the same time, we need to think about the longer horizon and think now about what and when will replace the association agreement. What ambitious goals will we set so that our relations [with the EU] do not lose momentum?”
Bohdan Ben is a researcher in the field of social and ethical philosophy and in the field of local governance. He was among the winners of the program “Youth will change Ukraine” organized by Bohdan Hawrylyshyn Foundation. Together with his friends, he began the implementation of the project “In the land of Hope,” which aims to facilitate and promote local initiatives that strive for social and ecological sustainability. Bohdan can be reached by email@example.com