Today, decentralisation, or more broadly, the reform of local self-government and administrative-territorial system, claims to be the most “exemplary reform” in Ukraine.
Though, only few will call this reform accomplished. Amalgamation of hromadas, as well as transfer of powers and funds to them, are of course important steps, but only the first ones.
To find out the next steps, the “European Pravda” met with Hennadii Zubko, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister, and Georg Milbradt, Special Envoy of the German Government. The conversation met all the expectations.
The Vice Prime Minister for the first time publicly admitted that it would be once necessary to move to a “forced” amalgamation of hromadas.
The hromadas of the Kyiv Oblast, that avoid participation in the reform by holding on to expensive land, are among the contenders for this. Particular attention is paid to the hromadas of national minorities in the Zakarpattia Oblast, there is specific advice from the Western partners. Another news is that the constitutional reform frozen because of the “special status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts” can get a new breath.
The nearest plans include approval of 17 draft laws, submitted to the Parliament. This and other information is featured in the interview of Georg Milbradt and Hennadii Zubko to the “European Pravda”.
“I do not buy a pig in a poke”
What is the mission of the Special Envoy of the German Government for decentralisation?
Hennadii Zubko: The idea of such an assignment came up a year ago, during the visit of President Poroshenko to Cancellor Merkel. One of the questions related to that visit was: why does the German Government know that little about our reforms?
This is how this position was established which improved communication and, at the same time, increased the impact of Europe on the implementation of this reform. It must be noted that Germany has special experiences in regard to decentralisation: it managed unification with its new lands which had long been exposed to the Soviet system of public administration.
Georg Milbradt: This reform is of strategic importance, because it is changing the mentality of people. Ukraine – under the Russian Tsars just like in the Soviet Union – used to be governed following the “top-down” principle. Now, the “bottom-up” system is being rebuilt, when citizens start to take over responsibility for their life. This system makes you feel that you, citizens, are this country.
I see my role in communication to various interest groups striving to find a compromise and to have the Parliament adopt necessary laws based on this compromise. Decentralization must be not only the reform of the Government, it must be a project for the entire Ukraine.
We must completely change the structure, the local administration system, and for this we need changes in the legislation. I want to stress that we have a very limited time for this.
Your “window of possibilities” is limited to 6-7 months.
In the autumn, the Presidential election campaign will start, the Parliament won’t be able to adopt that many regulations anymore. In 2019 there will be Parliamentary elections followed by the local elections in 2020. If we do not have changes approved now, it means that we will postpone the reform at least till 2021 or 2022.
You mean the adoption of 17 draft laws. Did you analyse all of them, or do you just trust the Ukrainian Government?
G.Milbradt: Of course, I am not buying a pig in a poke, I did read each of these draft laws. I really know what they are all about – I went through them jointly with Ukrainian lawyers.
H.Zubko: I can confirm that: we not only analysed these draft laws, we had discussions about each one.
What draft laws are the key ones?
G.Milbradt: I was waiting for this question, which is why we prepared a list with all draft laws sorted by their priority (the table provided by the Special Envoy is available by the link)
The first group includes draft laws simplifying the amalgamation procedure for hromadas and removing factors which hamper the amalgamation process at different levels.
The second group consists of draft laws which provide new incentives for amalgamated hromadas. We need a “carrot” to stimulate the amalgamation of hromadas. I see three such carrots. The first one is money, i.e. financial motivation for hromadas, and quite a lot has been done in Ukraine in this regard already. The second one is the possibility to plan territorial development. And the third one is the possibility for AHs to establish their own administrations.
The last group of draft laws refers to the transfer of the reform to the higher level, which is the district level.
The main challenge in the decentralization reform is that you have to change a huge number of laws. Compared to, for instance, the education or healthcare reform where all laws were adopted in one package, here we must make many small steps, though they are all connected with each other.
You have already mentioned the upcoming elections. But, in line with the Ukrainian political tradition, the election campaign has actually already started. So is it realistic to expect the whole list of draft laws to be adopted?
G.Milbradt: The election campaign in Ukraine does not differ that much from what we have in Germany or other European countries. But anyway – we must do it now.
In the office of Vice Prime Minister Zubko you can see the map of Ukraine with amalgamated hromadas marked on it. And you can many white spots on this map, this is where hromadas fail to amalgamate.
These white spots must be deleted, this is our goal.
H.Zubko: We want to accelerate the amalgamation process; to make it happen, we offer the possibility of voluntary accession for the cities of regional significance without unscheduled elections. We offer new powers and new opportunities.
And the next local elections in 2020 will be conducted in amalgamated hromadas already, and there will be real, not virtual, powers at stake, including control of land and territorial planning.
This should motivate people who live in the regions but currently do not see any sense in participating in the political process.
Apart from that, we are trying to avoid political influence on the amalgamation of hromadas, and for this we must leave it behind as fast as possible.
“We will have to force those who oppose to amalgamation”
Ukraine is pursuing the amalgamation of hromada on voluntary basis only. Do you believe it is possible to persuade all hromadas to amalgamate voluntarily?
G.Milbradt: Different European countries have different approaches. In Poland, the Government just grabbed the country map and changed the country’s structure overnight establishing powiats and voivodship. This process was not voluntary.
Another example is the former German Democratic Republic. People there had some time for voluntary amalgamation, since the Government wanted the reform to be accepted by the citizens. We considered it impossible to pursue a reform which would have been rejected by the people, which is why we wanted to offer them an incentive, a “carrot”, before showing them a “stick”.
Of course, we won’t achieve 100%, we won’t be able to delete all “white spots” on the map.
But it is important to minimise the number of these problem areas.
If there are 5% or 10% left on the map, it won’t be difficult to finalize this reform in one go. But if 50% of the map are covered with such “white spots”, we will be confronted with public resistance, and the reform will flop. It is impossible to impose this reform “top-down”, just like it was the case in the Soviet times.
Many countries in Europe tried to pursue voluntary amalgamation, and none of them even managed to achieve 80% without applying “enforcement” to some extent.
G.Milbradt: Yes, some countries had to switch to a new mode and, at some stage, introduced legislation forcing municipalities to amalgamate. This was a correct decision, because you can’t actually have “two classes” of hromadas, i.e. those operating under the old laws and the ones for which the laws have been changed.
Hence, in the transitional period you can apply the purely voluntary approach, but one day you will have to present the new map of Ukraine.
And to make it happen, you will have to force those who oppose this?
G.Milbradt: Yes, but it is my personal view based on my own experience.
But I think it is realistic to cover 80-90% of the country map with hromadas which amalgamate voluntarily. If you reach some critical number of amalgamated hromadas, this will have an impact on the opinion of remaining hromadas, it will be convincing to them.
H.Zubko: I very much appreciate the delicate way in which Mr. Milbradt is speaking on this issue. The thing is that this must be Ukraine’s own decision, so that nobody can say that this has been imposed on Ukraine by someone, that we will one day pursue the administrative solution. I prefer to use the word “administrative”, not “compulsory”.
But you do admit that one day you will have to pursue the “administrative” amalgamation?
H.Zubko: Sure! That is why we have been making efforts for three years already to simplify the process of voluntary amalgamation and to equip amalgamating hromadas with additional powers enhancing them. We are using all possible means to keep this process voluntary.
But if we start to feel that the process stalls due to the influence of political interest groups or due to the lack of leaders ready to take over the amalgamation process or through the lack of will among local leaders to amalgamate –
“if we see that this is the root of the problem, we will switch to the administrative way.”
But now it is important to stick to the voluntary process.
Ukraine has a negative experience when the Government tried to impose administrative decisions without transferring the necessary powers and resources to the local level. Our idea is to make people ask their local leaders: “why do we see changes in the neighboring hromada, and you still do nothing?”.
Hence, this year is very important to use all chances, to provide the “carrot” as well as possibilities and capacities.
Now you are giving “carrots”, but later on you will have to grab the “stick”, right?
H.Zubko: This is how it will be. This process can’t go on forever.
We want to meet the local elections in 2020 with as many amalgamated hromadas as possible. The question is only when we will have to force the remaining hromadas to amalgamate – after 2020 or before 2020. It can’t be the case that one hromada has resources, powers and responsibility and another one is still sponsored by the district state administration.
“No one will wait for a good will in the Kyiv Oblast. We will act in administrative way”
One of the “white spots” without a single amalgamated hromada is just around the capital of Ukraine.
H.Zubko: Yes, Kyiv region is special. Also, the Zakarpattia Oblast has its peculiarities as well, just like Besarabia, too.
Considering prices for the land around Kyiv, I have big doubts that some “carrot” would be enough to establish many amalgamated hromadas here.
H.Zubko: It’s not only about the expensive land, but also about the infrastructure which generates tax revenues. Heads of village councils in the Kyiv Oblast collect the excise tax on fuel and goods which makes their hromadas feel ok financially without taking over responsibility for their social infrastructure – schools or outpatient clinics or hospitals.
We regularly pick up 1-2 hromadas to persuade them to amalgamate. This is a difficult process just like the processes at Kyiv regional council which has not yet even adopted the amalgamation plan.
But I want to use this opportunity to say: it won’t stop us. Nobody will wait for the day, when only 10% of the map of the Kyiv Oblast are covered with “white spots”; we will switch to the administrative way of amalgamation.
G.Milbradt: Hromadas located around big cities which have enough money and are not willing to amalgamate pose a special problem.
They are like people hiking on the bus and not paying the fare.
“They are “riding the bus”, i.e. they use the infrastructure without paying for this.”
And what is the specifics of the Zakarpattia Oblast?
H.Zubko: The development plan of the Zakarpattia Oblast is still pending as well. At the same time, there are hromadas in the Zakarpattia Oblast which are willing to amalgamate, and the Government adopts decisions on their amalgamation and their acknowledgement as capable hromadas.
But there is some specifics there which is due to the presence of ethnical minorities which try to establish hromadas based on the national principle.
You have some concerns about this?
H.Zubko: No, I do not. I follow the principle of voluntariness here. Yes, the Zakarpattia Oblast Administration is special. The amalgamation process might take more time here, but we understand this region better than Kyiv region where the progress is even worse.
G.Milbradt: I have something to add about the Zakarpattia Oblast, since in the Parliament of Saxony I represented the Lusatian Sorbs (West Slavic ethnic group compactly residing in several lands of Eastern Germany).
Of course, a reform like this requires attention to the interests of ethnical groups. Sometimes you can even ignore the general rules of amalgamation and make an exception to make a new hromada only include settlements where the respective minority is actually the “ethnical majority”.
This was the case in Saxony: we made an exception for the size of the Sorbian municipalities which are somewhat smaller than their German counterparts. We did not change the structure of the Sorbian municipalities, though according to the legislation we should have increased them by amalgamating them with the German municipalities.
Thanks to this exception, the Sorbs remain the ethnical majority in their municipalities.
“Separatism is born at the oblast level”
Does it make sense for Ukraine to increase its rayons and oblasts as well?
G.Milbradt: If we make hromadas bigger and more powerful, it also impacts the next level, which is the rayon level. Hence, we must already think about our next steps at the rayon level.
The specific feature of the structure of Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Germany was the principle “divide and rule”. The idea was: the smaller the administrative units, the easier they are to be governed. But if you make hromadas bigger, it would logical to increase the rayons as well. If you have 1,000 hromadas and 490 rayons, there is some discrepancy here.
Should the oblasts be increased as well?
G.Milbradt: Well, a smaller oblast is not a problem, also for political reasons.
H.Zubko: I am ready to explain why we can’t change the number of rayons, but do not have to change the number of the oblasts.
If a hromada is delegated powers to manage all areas including education, healthcare, public services etc., the respective rayon administration’s remaining task is only to coordinate issues related to the cooperation of hromadas. For instance, a rayon council needed for all hromadas or roads between hromadas. Thus, the huge administrative capacity now available at the rayon level will become redundant, it will be just duplicating the work done by hromadas. Hence, our view is that the rayons must be increased as well.
But the oblast level is a different story.
“If we increase the oblasts, it can impact separatist sentiments.”
The point is that separatism is born at the oblast level but never appears at the level of hromadas, not even in powerful ones.
That is why it makes sense to keep the structure of oblasts stipulated in the Constitution. This is the basis of the integrity of Ukraine.
At the same time, we must review the powers of the oblasts. This is what changes to the Constitution are about – oblast or rayon councils shall operate having their executive committees, and the prefects shall ensure practical state supervision of legal compliance.
But amendments to the Constitution remain blocked. And, in their present form, they will remain blocked long enough, even forever.
H.Zubko: I do not think so. The amendments to the Constitution were blocked for one reason only – the special status (of the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts). Now, after the law on de-occupation has been adopted, we have different needs. This law offers better ways to take care of this territory.
Does it mean that you are going to bring back amendments to the Constitution?
H.Zubko: I am not sure if we have to raise this issue right now, since we need two sessions of the Parliament to amend the Constitution, but we are getting closer to the election campaign, and this won’t be helpful.
Decentralisation is a practical thing to be handled by experts. If politicians step in here, we are likely to receive what we could see during the adoption of amendments to the Constitution on 31 August 2015.
Have I understood it correctly that the amendments to the Constitution on decentralisation can be proposed without a norm on special status of Donbas?
H.Zubko: I think that after the adoption of the so-called “de-occupation law” this option can be discussed as well to avoid any connection between the change of the state governance system and the problems on the occupied territories.
However, unfortunately, the Government does not have the right of legislative Constitutional initiative, which is why it is not up to us.
Should we still keep the military civil administrations?
G.Milbradt: This must be decided by the Ministry of Defense. But I would like to stress that even in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts we can see amalgamated hromadas – on the territories controlled by Ukraine, of course.
This is an example of how you could indirectly impact the occupied territories. The territory controlled by the Government must become a pattern, in this case Ukraine will have a chance to get out of this conflict with a success.
By the way, the success of Ukraine will also be impacting Russia, not only the occupied territories.
Discussion was held by Serhiy Sydorenko, editor of the “European Pravda”
Photo by Dmytro Larin, “European Pravda”
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