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Something Wicked This Way Comes: Ukrainian Local Elections And Post-Maidan Madness

On October 25, millions of Ukrainians rushed to polling stations nationwide and casted votes to elect roughly 170,000 city and regional officials. Last held in 2010, these local elections, considered by some to be the most important in the country’s history, will take place amid chaos.

Continued warfare in the east with Russia, enduring threats of ultranationalist violence, and a humanitarian crisis deemed worse than the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster leave President Poroshenko and his cabinet in an unenviable position. Without continued support from the West, the eastern European country of 45 million people risks re-erupting into lawlessness—an outcome that benefits no one, save perhaps Russia. As former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer correctly states, “The post-Maidan honeymoon is over.”

Unprecedented interest in this month’s elections comes in the midst of Poroshenko’s controversial proposal to decentralize authority and empower the country’s regions. The ambitious reform would allot more autonomy to local governments, thereby shedding Ukraine’s so-called “Soviet atavism” and making government more accountable to the people. The plan has already been lauded by Western institutions like the Venice Commission, one of the Council of Europe’s advisory bodies, comprised of experts on constitutional and international law.

Some progress has been made. Since the beginning of 2015, for example, the reallocation of funds to regional government coffers has yielded budget increases of nearly 40 percent, on average. On August 31, a draft law that would allow for further decentralization measures passed the preliminary stages of ratification.

Yet, the prospect of decentralization has met stiff resistance from resurgent ultranationalist groups and radical civil society organizations, which perceive more regional autonomy as concessions to Russia and the separatist regions in the east. Four policemen were killed, and over a hundred injured, after a grenade was thrown at a nationalist protest in front of Ukraine’s Rada, or parliament, the same day the draft law passed.

“The political and economic condition of the new Ukraine is extremely precarious,” warns George Soros in his latest essay, and these “ultranationalist elements are on the verge of rebellion.” Since the elections are testaments to localized governance, and will draw large crowds, Poroshenko should not discount the possibility that groups like Svoboda or the Right Sector will express dissent through violence, especially if he manages to push the bill successfully through the Rada, though the likelihood of this remains uncertain.

Decentralization also risks exacerbating one of Ukraine’s most systemic issues, corruption, at a time when a large majority of the Ukrainian population has either a “somewhat or very unfavorable” view of President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s actions thus far. A July 2015 poll of more than 1,000 respondents revealed that corruption is the most important issue for Ukrainians, behind only the war with Russia and the rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. At present, Ukrainians believe the fight against corruption was more successful under Ukraine’s previous leader, ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who embezzled billions from the state and owned a lavish palace outside Kiev, the capital.

Unsurprisingly, there have been multiple instances of vote-buying nationwide. The distribution of food parcels in exchange for votes has been documented in the regions of Khmelnytsky, Cherkasy, Dnipropetrovsk, Chernivtsi, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhia, Poltava, and Zhytomyr. In some cases, parties have gotten creative, offering free Wi-Fi hubs, horseback riding lessons, and opportunities to jump on trampolines for pledges of support, according to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine.

Worryingly, more than a third of Ukraine’s population is disenfranchised. In Russian-annexed Crimea, voting is postponed indefinitely. Moreover, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission cancelled elections in 91 local councils in Donetsk and 31 in Luhansk, and rescheduled them for an undetermined date in 2016. This says nothing of the 1.5 million internally displaced persons, or the approximately 15 million who, due to poor legislation and slow reform, cannot vote because they no longer reside where they initially registered. Half of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population will be left without representation, providing a pretext for Russian President Vladimir Putin to call foul and continue implementing the Putin Doctrine.

These accumulated grievances and problems could mean terrible news for Petro Poroshenko and the future of Ukraine. Taking a more active role in stabilizing Ukraine should be a necessity for the West, and particularly Europe—itself plagued by a migrant crisis.

There are a few steps worth considering.

First, as author Lev Golinkin suggests, the United States, Europe, and Ukraine’s government must “ensure that the people of Ukraine continue to believe that they have a positive future with the West.” Since there has been no indication that military weaponry is forthcoming, financial assistance must be increased and allocated to food, clothing, and other “immediate relief, stamped with ‘Courtesy of Kiev and the United States.’” Direct assistance to the people, especially during the brutal winter, will go a long way, and might even stave off radicalization and calls for revolution.

Second, a jointly coordinated PR campaign—one that is both far-reaching and well financed—must be carried out, to persuade Ukrainians that decentralization will strengthen the country and propel it toward Europeanization. Polls show that nearly 70 percent of Ukrainians support the idea of transferring power from central authorities to local communities. Nationwide, support is over 50 percent; in western Ukraine, it exceeds 80 percent.

Ultranationalist rhetoric will backfire if its adherents are portrayed as defying the people’s wishes and impeding modernization. Poroshenko should repeatedly announce that this reform comes from a point of strength by reaffirming that “defense, national security, rule of law, and compliance with civil liberties” will remain centralized, and that no special concessions will be made to the rebel regions until strict conditions are met under the Minsk II agreement.

Third, Kiev must vigorously and consistently tout what small successes it has had in combating corruption, stressing to the people that no matter who is in power, legitimate change will not come swiftly. To date, the government has utterly failed to communicate these triumphs when there have been some.

For example, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ complete overhaul of Kiev’s police force has impressed the public and has been replicated in other large cities like Lviv, Odessa, and Kharkiv, with plans to expand even further. Similarly, collaboration among Ukrainian and American contracting companies has allowed the Ministry of Defense to save over 10 percent on financing by awarding contracts through merit-based processes rather than through patronage networks.

These are small steps, but steps nonetheless. Everyone should know about them.

Finally, attending to the needs of Ukraine’s internally displaced persons would be mutually beneficial for both Kiev and Brussels. Over 90 percent of Ukrainians support the idea of government-led assistance programs—particularly through providing housing and other forms of shelter. Pursuing this program would simultaneously provide unemployed Ukrainians with job opportunities.

Of course, there is the issue of money, which the Poroshenko administration is desperately lacking. Certain pundits have maintained, though, that there are ways around this. One such method includes modifying the EU’s Macro-Financial Assistance mechanism, which, if done appropriately, could allow the EU to unlock an additional €10.6 billion in defense-related expenditures for Ukraine—more than enough to cover the costs of the suggested policy recommendations above.

The October 25 elections will allow the Poroshenko administration, as well as the West, to gauge how much damage control will need to be done in order to lead Ukraine through the winter in one piece.

Originally posted on New Framework

Luke A. Drabyn is currently a U.S. Fulbright Student based in Kiev, Ukraine, conducting research on transnational human trafficking policy. A former Blog Manager at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, he has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Department of State, and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter at @LukeDrabyn.


Luke A. Drabyn

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