On 25 October the Ukrainians went to the polls to elect new regional and local representatives. Unfortunately not all segments of the country were free to elect new representatives, including the illegally occupied Crimea Peninsula. Critics of the elections were quick to point out shortcomings, but regardless of these shortcomings the elections were an important stepping-stone towards a new future for Ukraine.
The results showed the willingness of Ukrainians to improve the transparency of local and regional institutions and reduce corruption as a corroding factor in Ukrainian political life. Key to the future peace and stability of Ukraine are apart from the solid democratic institutions the decentralization of the state in a way which respects subsidiarity but maintains the national unity of the country. Recently elected local Ukrainian politicians spoke to the Secretary General of the ALDE Group in the EU Committee of the Regions, Sean O’Curneen, and an engaged Brussels-based audience to explore decentralization and ways to use decentralization as a vehicle of peace in the country. The event was set up as part of a visiting program by a group of recently elected Mayors and Members of their City Councils.
Asking local politicians Diana Sergiienko and Yuriy Bova if decentralization could lead to peace in Ukraine their response was both well-matched and crystal clear: Both experienced the same obstacles in their municipalities leading to the answer that Ukraine would prosper and profit from decentralization, but only if related institutional questions are tackled in parallel. According to Sergiienko and Bova rampant corruption makes decentralization a challenge. Multiple levels of government also means more levels at which public funds can be mishandled. Without efficient public spending local authorities cannot afford to provide key services to its constituents, and corruption is depleting local coffers. Corruption also allows Ukrainian oligarchs to position allies in key public administration position, a further detriment to the decentralization process. Removing those two obstacles would, according to the Ukrainian speakers, set free a chain of events that could turn Ukrainian politics around. Yuriy Bova stressed that EU Institutions have a key role to play in helping Ukraine combat the twin ills of corruption and nepotism.
Who starts building a house by constructing a roof?
Implementing decentralization does not necessarily bring the desired effects. Decentralization is not an end-goal, but a fluid process which several EU member states are grappling with. Sean O’Curneen emphasized the need for an approach which fits the local context, while safeguarding individual liberties. Decentralization can falter either by going too far, or not far enough. O’Curneen took the example of Spain where decentralization also led business to question whether political decentralization was fragmenting the Spanish market. What O’Curneen pointed out was that unless decentralization is implemented through dialogue between the various levels of government, business and civil society interests, the outcome might not fit local realities. Thus, O’Curneen drew the metaphor of decentralization resembling the process of building a house. You cannot start with an eye-catching roof; instead at first you have to build a strong foundation that can sustain occasional rainstorms.
Catalyst for reforms in Ukraine
Comments and questions from the audience as well as concluding remarks by the panelists showed that one factor in particular would facilitate reform in Ukraine, namely a change of mentality where citizens would see the state as their partner rather than as an obstacle to change. To reach this change of mentality the public not only has to be better informed of the role the state could play, the state itself must tackle corruption and nepotism head on. The result would be more public confidence in the government at all levels. Much can be taken away from the group’s visit to Brussels, where they met with EU and Belgian officials to learn how other Europeans have handled similar demands for decentralization. A constant and complex process, the promise of decentralization is to empower local elected officials to act in the best interest of their constituents.