Decentralisation has been discussed in Ukraine ever since the country’s independence. Major benefits of decentralisation include: Moving away from a Soviet system of central control that transformed into an apparatus of corruption; ensuring better development across the country; deepening democracy by letting local bodies decide on local affairs and fostering a sense of local responsibility in a big country that is accustomed to await decisions from the often far-away capital; and allowing the national government to focus on national challenges only, thus enhancing its efficiency.
Despite these discussions and benefits, there has been no serious attempt at decentralisation as the centralised system served the political elites. The 2015 draft proposals for decentralisation are thus a milestone in transforming Ukraine’s governance and bringing power much closer to the people concerned. At the preliminary approval stage on 31 August, they achieved the necessary absolute majority of votes, but it is uncertain if it will master the 2/3 majority required for the final adoption. Most MPs of the two coalition parties voted against the bill. The proposed constitutional changes have become so controversial that they led to violent demonstration in front of parliament and an attack costing the lives of four policemen.
Two problems have bedevilled this reform process: First, there was little public information and debate on what this reform is about. Rather than a crowning achievement of a national effort to reform the country, the reform proposal was perceived by many as an attempt by the executive to hammer out a far-reaching reform with unknown consequences. Second, in the context of the Russian-supported violent take-over in Eastern Ukraine, the innocent idea of decentralisation achieved a different, sinister connotation. Opponents of the reform argue that any passing of power to the sub-national level encourages secessionism. These concerns were kindled by the fact that additional last-minute provision, section 18, was added to the bill allowing special arrangements in certain territories – a nod to the Minsk II agreement. Most of those who did not approve the bill on 31 August concluded that Section 18 would directly implement the most controversial aspects of the Minsk II, such as exemption from criminal liability for armed groups, a role for local self-government bodies in the appointment of judicial personnel and a role for local militia. However, this is not the case. The bill does not address any of these three aspects. They would have to be regulated by separate ordinary legislation.
This briefing paper seeks to demystify the reform bill on decentralisation aimed to establish a new system of local self-government and territorial organisation on the constitutional level. It is a complex legal document that cannot be boiled down to the slogans of #victory or #treason (#перемога or #зрада), both still dominating media and public debates. Its content is comparable to decentralisation in many other EU countries. If adopted, it would eliminate the infamous ‘power vertical’ which provides significant de jure and de facto powers over local affairs to the national executive.
Even if some provisions could be strengthened further to underpin the local self-government, the reform bill represents a massive step forward in giving the local level responsibility over local affairs. Local affairs would be dealt with by elected representatives at three sub-national levels: Communities, as the lowest level, rayons at the next level and oblasts as the highest sub-national level. Prefects would have limited rights of supervision on behalf of the central power. Their role would however be much less intrusive than that of the current general prosecutor. The reform would shape the country’s agenda for a long time and should therefore be well understood.