Decentralization is a time bomb and could lead to the disintegration of Ukraine, according to Russian media. This false narrative is used to attach one of Kiev’s most important reforms, the administrative one, which also benefits from advice provided by the EU. At the same time, this alleged failure of decentralization is presented in contrast with the success of a centralized administration like the one in Russia.
NEWS: “Despite the rewriting of the Ukrainian Constitution with each change of president, administrative-territorial reform has become, perhaps, the only institutional transformation in the last twenty years. But, instead of strengthening the state and accelerating social development, this reform has become a powerful destructive factor.
In Ukraine, there have always been conflicts between state authorities and local self-government. However, until recently, conflicts were private stories, either with an ideological background or the result of a banal struggle for resources […]
The main problem of decentralization for the Ukrainian state is that local elites want (and have already started) to build their strategies without taking the center into account. The state gradually relinquishes its functions and proves incapable of having regional ‘barons’ accept rules that should be common and binding for all. […]
And there are no other barriers to neo-feudal tendencies in Ukraine. Under these circumstances, “it’s every man for himself” becomes the optimal strategy. The state will increasingly be perceived as an unnecessary burden and a generator of conflict. The question of whether this state still makes sense will become more and more relevant, and alternative paradigms of political developments will not be long in coming.
NARRATIVES: 1. Decentralization is a “time bomb” for Ukraine, which will fall apart. 2. Kiev no longer has the influence it once had over the regions, and local elites consider the existence of the state to be a burden and a useless thing.
BACKGROUND: Decentralization in Ukraine, as a reform, has included several stages. First, in the years 2016-2019, villages and towns were merged based on the principle of voluntary union, then the fate of localities that were left out of this process was decided at meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers, after consultations with Regional State Administrations (representing the Government in the regions), but also with parliamentarians from the uninominal constituencies. The merging of localities took place out of the need to reduce administrative costs and optimize public services
Broadly speaking, the reform was aimed at maximizing the principle of subsidiarity, which means as few powers in district / regional centers as possible and as many in communes (following the EU model). The logic of the former government led by Volodymyr Groisman (from the time of President Petro Poroshenko) was to eliminate the administrative formulas left over from the communist regime and the 90s: the abolition of district administrations and district councils, debureaucratization and reform of regional administrations through the institute of prefects that will only monitor the activity of the local self-government bodies and will have a dialogue with the Government. The reform is still ongoing and has a number of positive effects in several regions, but there are still some issues.
The Russian media has repeatedly attacked the idea of local reform, especially against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, showing that the Russian centralized system, with a strong government, is doing much better than the Ukrainian leadership, which, following decentralization, can no longer control the situation. The reform has often been used by the Russian-funded press to fuel the narrative of “Ukraine – a fake state that will soon fall apart.”
PURPOSE: The purpose of these narratives is to undermine and discredit the decentralization reform, by emphasizing negative aspects and ignoring the positive ones. Equally, Russian-speaking readers are being suggested that Ukraine is going to fall apart, and the Ukrainian state is a fake one, which has not been fulfilling its functions for years. Therefore, the EU’s recommendations, it seems, should not be taken into account by the leaders of the former Soviet states. The text is accompanied by a series of TV interviews as part of the program: “Ukraine now – Kievan Russia in the period of feudal fragmentation”, in which various experts claim that local elites cannot wait for the state to dismantle.
WHY THE NARRATIVES ARE FALSE: In reality, the decentralization reform, which has not yet been completed, has established a balance of power between the center and the regions. The secessionist attitudes of local leaders and society rejecting the idea of the Ukrainian state are not confirmed by any sociological research. On the contrary, the analytical centers in Ukraine note a consolidation of the Ukrainian civic identity after the outbreak of the conflict in Donbass and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Moreover, more than 80 percent of well-informed respondents support the decentralization reform in Ukraine. For the time being, Kiev has kept the Regional State Administrations in order not to permanently destroy the government vertical, following a gradual transfer of powers to the new administrative-territorial units.
GRAIN OF TRUTH: There have been various misunderstandings between the center and the regions in the past, but these were not the consequence of decentralization reform and did not necessarily mean the failure of the Ukrainian state idea in the eyes of local elites. The only such situations existed in 2013-2014 when Russia tried to take over the eastern and southern Ukrainian regions, with the help of Russian agents or citizens who came to power in Ukraine. On the other hand, there were also problems of a financial, legislative, administrative nature, but ideas such as “if there is any point in the existence of this state” were never discussed.