Decentralization done right can strengthen Ukraine

Ukraine is in crisis, and this crisis has been exploited by Russia to seize Crimea. At the root of the crisis lies a lack of genuine political competition that limits the supply of trusted national leaders and provides for corruption that paralyzes governance institutions. Unless popularly elected local leaders are given a greater stake in the political system of Ukraine, reactionary forces within and outside of Ukraine would be further invited to take advantage of the country.

In a nation that is as centralized as Ukraine, the benefits of power become concentrated in a small group around the president or prime minister and the party that supports them. As a result, there can be large parts of the country where nobody feels any investment in the national political system. When there is external threat to national sovereignty, people in these disaffected regions have little or no interest in defending their political system.

The worst possible structure may be that which Ukraine currently has: While power is effectively concentrated in the central government around the President and Prime Minister, every province has popularly elected provincial councilors who have electoral mandates that could enable them to legitimize a secession, but who have little actual power and so have little or no incentive to defend the constitutional system of Ukraine. As soon as possible, the provincial councils should be given some real power to spend public funds and exercise some local patronage power so that they should value their positions in the constitutional structure of Ukraine. This could be done most easily by allowing the provincial councils to select their own governors.

A country is strong when, in every community throughout the nation, there are local leaders who are widely trusted and respected in their community and who have a stake in the national political system. When a constitution devolves a real share of power to democratic local governments, it guarantees that every community will have elected local leaders who have a vested interest in sustaining the constitutional system that has empowered them, and who have proven their ability to mobilize a substantial fraction of the local population for political action.

We should think a bit more about what could be an optimal devolution of power to maximize the number of local political leaders who have effective incentives to defend integrity of Ukraine and the interests of the public. It might be better in Ukraine to decentralize relatively more power to district and municipal councils, and so relatively less to the provincial councils, in comparison to what might be normal in many other countries. These lower-level councils, if empowered by Ukraine, could help provide a bulwark against secession and capture of their region. Being more numerous, it would be harder for outsiders to bribe all these local councils, and a treasonous group of provincial councilors would have more difficulty leading a secession if the district and municipal leaders in their province opposed secession. The national government could more easily dissolve a treasonous provincial council if the lower-level councils remained loyal.

Thus, a good decentralization reform should distribute administrative responsibilities and budgetary authority both to provincial councils and to lower-level district and municipal councils, in a balanced way. And each of these sub-national councils should know that their much-valued authority could be immediately suspended by the Verkhovna Rada if they ever moved to endorse secession from Ukraine.

A successful decentralization reform is challenging. Some might argue that centrally appointed prefects should continue to hold veto power over the policies of regional and local governments. If the veto can be easily exercised, the central government will be able to continue to control regional policies without accepting responsibility. Provisions for close supervision or control of the local governance decisions and the budget by nationally appointed prefects could become an excuse for transferring such local power back up to the center.

Even if centrally appointed officials who supervise local decisions are made independent from the central government, they might have little incentive to guarantee that policies of local government will be responsive to preferences of local residents, instead of just depending on which group got a national majority in a presidential election. The prefects who do not have a political stake in localities they supervise will be at risk of capture by third parties or may abstain from the decision making process in critical times. The brutality and the corruption of the previous government was only possible because the officials entrusted with the responsibility to check abuse of power had no motivation to do so once pressured. Genuine decentralization requires letting locally elected leaders take full responsibility for the quality of their local public services, good or bad.

Many fear decentralization on the grounds that Russia officially supports federalization. Russia’s position should make us vigilant but it is not a reason to discredit the idea of decentralization. Instead, it must become an occasion for an open and informed debate. The true motives of the Russian government are murky, and it could even advocate one position with the goal of stimulating others to oppose it.

The Russian government might support federalization despite or even because of its belief that federalization in the form proposed by the Russian government is impossible. Russia might desire to further polarize the country, while posturing to be involved in a search of diplomatic solution. If coupled with a hostile reaction to the idea in Kyiv, the Russian support of federalization might succeed in reinforcing the fears of a “government of victors” by the Russian-leaning parts of the population, and it could then cause others outside Ukraine to doubt whether the new government can be trusted to engage in a political resolution of the crisis. A recent statement on decentralization by a local Rada in the East of Ukraine will feed the fears of secession and the reaction in Kyiv is unlikely to appeal to the statement’s signatories.

On the other hand, a decentralization that would actually benefit Ukrainians everywhere might also let the Russian government claim some success in protecting ethnic Russian “minorities,” removing rationale for further military action.

We should develop a better understanding of alternatives. Russia, if existentially threatened by encroachment of the Western ideological and economic values, would try to subvert any government in Ukraine. In a centralized Ukraine, the effort would be applied to the president, who could be vulnerable to corrupt pressure on his business and family. It would be more difficult for outsiders to dominate a decentralized Ukraine overall, even though some individual leaders of regions or municipalities might be more susceptible to foreign influence.

The current institutional framework in Ukraine has been conducive to dictatorial tendencies of the central government and to the suppression of political competition. Recurrent crises have ensued. A proper change in the institutions should be worked out through careful public discussion in Ukraine. In the text of our decentralization initiative, endorsed by many academics in the West and Ukraine, we call for a public debate about the right way to conduct decentralization for Ukraine. Decentralization should be a part of the solution, and Ukraine does not need endorsement of Russia or the Council of Europe to tip the balance in favor of a specific option.

With T. Mylovanov


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