International Implications of Ukraine’s Decentralization

The local governance reform that Kyiv started in 2014 will, if successful, has cross-border repercussions by way of making the Ukrainian state more resilient, compatible with the EU, and a model for other post-Soviet republics.

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The currently ongoing decentralization reform in Ukraine leads to beneficial effects for the everyday life of citizens. Public administration becomes more rational, flexible, visible and interactive. State-society relations strengthen, and democratic accountability increases. As transparency of resource allocation increases, opportunities for realizing corrupt practices are gradually reduced. Economic activity in, and cross-regional rivalry of, local communities are facilitated.

Cities, towns and villages can easier cooperate with each other, but also compete for direct investment, touristic visitors, project funding, qualified personnel, and public resources. Talented youth in provincial regions can better self-realize at home. Patriotic energy is redirected from mythologizing imagined to improving real communities. Civic activism is encouraged and utilized for the public good.  Grass-roots initiatives can faster transform into efficacious public policies and become templates for nation-wide innovation.

In Ukraine, these and similar positive effects of decentralization, in general, gain additional weight in view of the country’s significance as one of Europe’s territorially largest nations, civilizational frontier states, crucial post-Soviet republics, and geopolitical pivot countries. Whatever course Ukraine takes in its domestic affairs has, because of the country’s international emanation, larger implications.

The fate of the Ukrainian transformation, not the least of the local governance reform, will deeply affect pan-European security and stability, post-communist socio-economic development, as well as East European liberalization and democratization.

Decentralization increases resilience

First and foremost, decentralization makes Ukraine as a state and nation more resilient. Along with other reforms, it reduces, suppresses or contains various post-Soviet pathologies of public administration and local development. This effect, in turn, is not only of municipal, regional or national, but also – in view of Ukraine’s geopolitical role – of international relevance.

Ukrainian decentralization devolves power to a level lower on, and to communities smaller than those in, which most of the old informal networks operate. While this doesn’t makes state-capture by private interest impossible, it complicates the subversion of the public sphere by private interests. It is true that decentralization sometimes simply transfers the locus of a corrupt network from the national or regional to the local level. In certain cases, it can even benefit clans that have been hitherto functioning within a municipal context.

On the whole, however, decentralization in Ukraine – like everywhere else in the world – strengthens rather than weakens democratic accountability, and promotes economic development. Newly empowered self-governing bodies are more exposed to public scrutiny and responsibility by their local communities than Ukraine’s byzantine administrative organs inherited from the Soviet system. When ambitious entrepreneurs encounter a local – rather than regional or national – political framework, their industriousness is more likely to turn into political and developmental rather than informal and extractive activity. On average, Ukraine’s novel Amalgamated Territorial Communities (ATCs) are thus less susceptible to subversion by semi-secretive networks and rapacious rent-seeking than the old oblast (regional) and rayon (county) administrations and councils. The new ATCs are – more than the older, far less powerful and smaller communes – motivated to engage in competition with other ATCs for attracting investment, charming tourists, providing services, and gaining fame.

Decentralization thus makes the Ukrainian state more stable, functional and effective. Ukraine’s increased resilience and greater dynamism supports its general modernization.

Whatever makes the largely pluralistic and liberal Ukrainian state stronger – rationalization, Europeanization, decentralization, privatization, deregulation etc. – undermines, in turn, the legitimacy of the klepto- and autocratic orders of other post-Soviet states. By strengthening Ukraine’s democracy and economy, its decentralization helps – because of Ukraine’s size and role in Eastern Europe – changing the entire post-Soviet area for the better.

Decentralization improves cohesion

Second, in addition to making Ukraine’s state more solid, in general, many Ukrainian politicians have come to also see decentralization as a peculiar antidote to Russia’s hybrid warfare, in particular. Not only does deeper involvement of ordinary Ukrainians in governmental affairs via decentralization support the national cohesion of Ukraine’s population and civic spirit of her citizenry. The currently ongoing devolution of power to the local level in Ukraine deprives Russia’s various hybrid warriors of customary institutional frames and critical entry points for seditious action. A decentralization that is not a federalization complicates the targeting and planning of irredentist operations similar to those in Simferopol, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. As regional capitals and governments gradually lose political relevance, it becomes more difficult for the Kremlin to clearly delineate territories where it may want to support a secession or/and prepare an annexation.

These anti-separatist effects of Ukraine’s decentralization have, in turn, not only a national, but also an international dimension. To the degree that local governance reforms – along with other ongoing transformations, in Ukraine – help to support Kyiv’s independence and to stabilize the Ukrainian state, they undermine Russian revanchism. The stronger is Ukraine, the less plausible looks Moscow’s neo-imperial project and the Kremlin’s hegemonic pretense in the former Tsarist or Soviet space. As Zbigniew Brzezinski quipped famously in 1997, “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”

Decentralization supports Europeanization

A third geopolitical aspect of Ukraine’s decentralization is that it supports Ukraine’s ongoing integration into the EU’s political and legal space in connection with the Eastern Partnership program started in 2009, and Association Agreement signed in 2014.

Decentralization helps preparing Kyiv’s forthcoming application for, and eventual acquisition of, full membership in the Union. In a certain way, Ukraine’s decentralization is a more fundamental aspect of Ukraine’s gradual Europeanization than other dimensions of this process partially influenced from outside.

Being a Ukrainian project inspired by, but not modelled on any one foreign example, and not following any predefined Western recipe, decentralization is in two ways significant. First, it is a visible manifestation of Ukraine’s turn-away from the Tsarist and Soviet centralist traditions of its past, within the former Russian empire. The very idea and start of the Ukrainian decentralization reforms documents the “European” character of Ukraine. It is practical proof of the civil, pluralist and open character of Ukraine’s political tradition and culture.

Second, the ongoing transition’s accumulating results are making Ukraine more and more compatible with the Union. The member countries of the EU are, in general, more or less decentralized. To one degree or another, many continue to further decentralize.  They, moreover, follow the well-known subsidiarity principle in their relations with both Brussels and their own regions as well as municipalities. The more deconcentrated and subsidiary Ukraine becomes, the more similar it will thus look to other European nations, and the better she will later be prepared for full accession to the EU.

The national origins and Europeanizing effects of Ukraine’s decentralization are not only important in terms of the spread of Western values and principles. They have also a larger geopolitical dimension. In as far as Kyiv’s local governance reform expresses and advances the “European” character of Ukraine, it demonstrates her belonging to the Western normative and cultural hemisphere. That, in turn, makes Ukraine’s ambition to enter the EU and NATO a more natural affair than it may have otherwise been.

Decentralization provides a model

A final – and, so far, speculative – geopolitical aspect of the ongoing transformation of Ukrainian self-governance concerns its cross-national diffusion potential.

Decentralization in Ukraine can, in the future, provide policy directions and institutional templates ready for use by other, so far highly centralized post-Soviet states in their forthcoming reform efforts. This concerns not only, but above all Russia herself, for which a decentralization along the Ukrainian localist rather than the older Russian federalist paradigm may one day become relevant.

As time goes by, each of the post-Soviet republics will become affected by gradual social modernization, cross-national norm dispersion, democratizing intra-elite divisions as well as international economic integration. These processes will more and more change all so far politically underdeveloped and culturally regressive post-communist countries. When governmental crises, competitive disadvantages, and general backwardness create sufficient pressure for deep reform in Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan or/and Central Asian, their nations will be looking for ideas and experiences that may help them to reconstitute their immobile societies and remake their inefficient states.

The possibility or even intention of cross-border diffusion is, of course, something im- or explicitly entailed in many reform concepts and efforts around the world. The Ukrainian local governance reform may, however, be of an even larger geopolitical salience because of its above-mentioned nation-building and anti-secessionist effects. The Ukrainian type of decentralization is not only an instrument for improving state-society relations. It can also function as a tool to stabilize regionally divided states threatened by separatist tendencies. In the same way that devolving power to local and municipal levels helps Ukraine to hold its territory together, an application of her decentralization model may one day also support other post-Soviet states to remain unified. This concerns not the least Russia whose sheer size and multi-ethnic character make her especially vulnerable to autonomism and secessionism.

Decentralization as an under-estimated reform agenda

The above list does not mean that local governance reform is a panacea for Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Yet, its Europeanizing, anti-separatist and diffusion potential makes it an especially salient, interesting and consequential aspect of Ukraine’s ongoing socio-political transformation. Within the context of some specifically post-Soviet political challenges, the empire-subverting and state-supporting dimension of decentralization bestow this particular reform in Ukraine with a larger meaning than other substantively similar processes of devolution of power from the national and regional to the municipal and local levels have in other parts of the world. Neither the overcoming of the Tsarist-Communist empire nor the formation of new nation states are yet finished businesses, in the post-Soviet area. Decentralization may do the trick or, at least, be one of the main instruments to effectively meet both of these daunting challenges.

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