It is easy to forget the sheer scale of the damage wrought by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The devastation caused by the sabotage of the Kakhovka Dam (costing lives and an as yet unknown repair bill) is therefore a terrible reminder of all the wreckage now littering the country.
Many would have already forgotten the damage done — fertile fields made inaccessible by land mines, residential buildings, and whole cities bombed to rubble, and massive damage to the infrastructure, primarily in those regions most affected by war. This is where most reconstruction work will have to be done.
However, as a representative of Ukraine’s Infrastructure Recovery and Development Agency explained to an audience of policy geeks this spring, the regions’ capacity for policy planning is still relatively low.
This is not surprising: prior to the beginning of full-scale invasion in February 2022, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stated that Ukraine should provide greater capacity-building support to municipalities to match the progress of decentralization reforms. In particular, it recommended strengthening stakeholder engagement at every stage of regional and local development planning. In other words, as things stood, municipal authorities were failing to engage sufficiently with civil society before making decisions.
Devolving more power to municipalities has been one of the success stories of reform agenda that emerged after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. That was when genuine reformers including those co-opted from civil society joined the new political elite. As a result of decentralization, municipal communities (hromadas) gained substantial financial powers, among them the right to retain 60% of personal income tax, and became eligible for state budget grants for education, healthcare, and other service provision. One-stop-shop administrative centers for public service provision were created with the support of reform funding from the European Union (EU) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD.) During the war, these centers were used for registering internally displaced people (IDPs) and for distributing humanitarian aid. (Ukraine currently has around 5.3 million IDPs.) Democratic elections of local authorities took part in October 2020. In most Ukrainian cities, these authorities stayed in power also after the beginning of the war and continued to perform their duties.
Yet, as the war continued, re-centralization tendencies have emerged. Mayors and local military administrations were given more powers vis-à-vis local communities. This was to be expected in areas near the frontlines, however, sometimes military administrations are based far from the front. President Zelenskyy’s decision to establish a military administration to replace a mayor of Chernihiv involved in a court case seemed to critics of the decision to be political. Civil society experts say there is a lack of clear criteria for establishing military administrations.
It might seem that a more centralized model for distributing resources for recovery would be more efficient, but in the case of Ukraine, most resilience comes from society, not from the state. Changes of governments and ruling parties in the years since 2014 have meant that the true locus of reforming capacity is in a few select teams in public administration and in the wide, diverse, and competent civil society. This has been illustrated time and again, not least through groups working with frontline troops to crowdfund and deliver equipment that the official bureaucracy was slow — or failing — to deliver.
The instinctive centralizing urge (a feature of all national governments, everywhere) needs to be balanced by genuine engagement when planning the regions’ future after the war.
This is not currently the case, and it matters a great deal. As a recent study by Chatham House illustrated, Ukraine’s rebuilding policies do not yet rely on the opinions or expertise of Ukraine’s impressively developed civil society, which feels “sidelined by national and regional authorities when it comes to planning and delivering the recovery.”
This problem was underlined by decisions made ahead of the June 21-22 Ukraine Recovery Conference in London, when controversy flared as a result of the decision to limit civil society participation to a side event. This unhelpful decision was explained by the need to focus on the business sector in the main session.
There is a massive contradiction in claiming that regional administrations lack policy expertise while failing to make room for civil society to help implement the recovery. Civil society was behind the reforms that have begun to change Ukraine and it believes, rightly, that modernization of state institutions and decentralization should be the first priority of recovery.
As the great Václav Havel once wrote: “Civil society generates genuine pluralism, and pluralism — leading to competition — produces quality . . . To rely solely on central state authorities . . . to always decide what needs to be done and how, equates power with truth, the most dangerous political conceit of this century.”
Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and also as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.