Cities of Kyiv and Mariupol highlight the benefits of reform, as EU develops city partnerships to tackle corruption.
The transfer of more powers and funds to local government – coupled with specific efforts to improve efficiency, transparency, and accountability – have boosted public trust and made possible significant increases in investment in public services in Ukraine, leaders of local-government associations and city mayors told the European Committee of the Regions on 18 November.
The annual meeting of the Ukraine Working Group, created – as the Ukraine Task Force – by the European Committee of the Regions in 2015, came against the backdrop of rising tensions in the east of Ukraine and a build-up of Russian forces on the border. “The prospect of a military invasion is real”, said Alexandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP), mayor of Gdańsk and chairwoman of the meeting.
“The mayors of Ukraine shared with their counterparts in the EU their deepest concerns regarding the intimidation they are currently suffering from Russia, and which has intensified in the last days and weeks,” said Ms Dulkiewicz. “We will echo their concerns to the highest political level in the EU. We stand together with our Ukrainian partners, particularly with cities and regions close to the war zone.”
The meeting, however, focused on the progress of decentralisation and on the rebalancing of administrative and financial powers between the different levels of governance in Ukraine, as well as on the scheduled adoption of legislation on public consultations. The meeting also came at a point when the CoR is working with the European Commission to develop city partnerships to support anti-corruption efforts by Ukrainian cities.
Vitali Klitschko , the mayor of Kyiv and head of the Association of Ukrainian Cities, praised the move from a “Soviet system” of governance that was “large, corrupt and inflexible” to a system based on “self-government”, which he described as “a fundament of democracy in every country”. While “I have the feeling that sometimes [the government] is trying to roll back decentralisation”, he said that “we are changing the system to make it more effective and work for our citizens”. The benefits have included cost savings, which he estimated at 11 billion hryvnia (366 million euros) over the past six years in Kyiv alone.
“There is no alternative to decentralisation, local self-governance and broader empowerment of local governments if we want to see Ukraine as an efficient and mature democracy,” Mr Klitschko said.
The European Union has been providing political, financial and technical support for the process of local-government reform, including anti-corruption efforts.
Andrii Borovyk of Transparency International Ukraine said that the pandemic has been a challenge, as “it closed the doors of many city halls and not every city was able to adapt”, but he remained optimistic about the overall long-term dynamic of change. While practical progress is currently concentrated in a vanguard group of 20 cities that have “a vision, strategy and plan”, 40 to 45 of 100 cities are now “very active”, with efforts typically being driven by the mayor.
Iryna Shyba of the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine (EUACI) noted the scale of the challenge – Ukraine is placed 117 th in Transparency International’s ranking – but was optimistic that Ukraine as a “great future”. EUACI is currently implementing an initiative, Integrity Cities, that will partner five cities in Ukraine with cities in the EU, to help the transfer of ideas on how to lead change, how to tackle corruption, and on which tools and technologies to use to improve the transparency and quality of local government. The project includes assessments of corruption risks and municipal enterprises, the adoption of municipal integrity plans, and the development of e-governance tools. The five Ukrainian partner-cities are: Mariupol, Chernivtsi, Zhytomyr, Nikopol, and Chervonohrad.
The transformation that governance reforms can make on the perception and fortunes of a city were brought into focus by the city of Mariupol. Once ranked 57th in public perceptions of transparency, Mariupol is now viewed as the most transparent city in Ukraine. Ksenia Sukhova from Mariupol City Council said that the reforms and a large increase in funding made available to the city since 2014 had the development of community-driven projects – in areas such as housing and education – and international cooperation in sectors such as water, waste, and transport. “Mariupol is the most open and transparent city in Ukraine, due to our cooperation with the EU,” Ms Sukhova said.
Viacheslav Nehoda , Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Communities and Territories Development, said that “strengthening democratic and transparent governance in Ukraine is one of the achievements of decentralisation of power in Ukraine”, and that decentralisation enjoys the support of over 80% of the public. Reformist politicians are also winning support – Ms Sukhova said that the level of trust in the mayor of Mariupol, Vadim Boichenko, is now over 80%. Similarly, participatory approaches encouraged by the reforms are proving popular. “People want to have an influence and they are very happy to have this opportunity,” said Mr Borovyk of Transparency International Ukraine.
Sergii Chernov , president of the Ukrainian Association of District and Regional Councils, described the seven years of reforms as a “joint achievement of Ukrainian authorities and external stakeholders”, but emphasised the need now for constitutional changes to support other legislative reforms.
The next major stage in reforms is expected to be the adoption of a law on public consultation. Antonella Valmorbida, secretary-general of the European Association for Local Democracy (ALDA), argued that the draft law, which she described as “very ambitious”, needs to focus on “feasibility and inclusiveness”, in part by ensuring a strong connection to economic development. ALDA, which is supported by the EU and the Council of Europe, has created local-democracy agencies in a number of Ukrainian cities, including Mariupol.
Andreas Kiefer , secretary-general of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, told the working group that “the consultation of local authorities by higher levels of government needs to be further improved and strengthened”. Recent actions include the creation of a Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Ukraine. While “inspired by the Congress of the Council of Europe”, Mr Kiefer noted that the Ukrainian Congress “has a different setup, composition, leadership, self-organisation and tasks” and said that the Council of Europe is currently assessing the new institution’s “representativity, inclusiveness and usefulness”.
In 2013, the Council of Europe drew up a roadmap to improve local self-government and decentralisation that identified three main areas for action. One related to constitutional changes. The second called for a transfer of competences to the local level as well as financial autonomy for local authorities. The third focused on the need for a permanent systematic consultation mechanism with national associations of local and regional authorities.
In addition to Ms Dulkiewicz, CoR members present at the Ukraine Working Group were: Władysław Ortyl (PL/ECR), president of the Podkarpackie Region and president of the ECR group; Bernd Voss (DE/Greens), member of Schleswig-Holstein State Parliament and co-president of the Green group; Krzysztof Iwaniuk (PL/EA), mayor of Terespol; Gints Kaminskis (LV/RE), member of Auce municipal council; and Stavros Stavrinides (CY/PES) from Strovolos Municipal Council.
EU cities interested in joining the Integrity Cities initiative are invited to contact the CoR secretariat (email@example.com).