Can Ukraine’s Experiments in Local Democracy Survive the Invasion?

Joe Mathews at Zocolo: “As I write this, Russian troops reportedly are moving north through the Odesa oblast, or region, toward the river Kodyma, along which sits a town called Balta.

This is not new territory for Balta, which like much of Ukraine has been contested over centuries of wars. But in recent years, Balta has actually broken a lot of new ground, at least when it comes to the practice of citizen-centered democracy. In 2016, Balta adopted participatory budgeting, an innovative process—originated in Brazil—in which citizens rather than officials determine their local budget. Balta also gave its young people their own governing council and a decision-making process to influence local policies.

Democracy, in its essence, is everyday people governing themselves. Such self-government happens most often at the local level, which is why countries tend to get more democratic when they decentralize.

Since the 2014 Maidan revolution, Ukraine has been among the more rapidly decentralizing, and democratizing, countries on Earth….

In a politically divided Ukraine, this devolution of local power had support across the spectrum, for a couple reasons.

The first was positive and driven by economics. Putting more money and power in localities was seen as the best bet for addressing poverty and inequality, and developing Ukraine in a balanced way that would make it a better fit with the rest of Europe, which has strong local governments. Since the 2014 Maidan revolution, Ukraine has been among the more rapidly decentralizing, and democratizing, countries on Earth.

The second reason, however, was defensive: the threat of separatism. In a country the size of Texas, greater local control was seen as the best way to placate localities and regions that might think of leaving—especially Donetsk and Luhansk, two Russian-speaking Ukrainian oblasts where Russia would make incursions (and which Putin would declare “independent” as a pretext for his new invasion).

“The path of decentralization was an asymmetrical response to the aggressor,” said Andriy Parubiy, a former speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, in 2017. “The process of the formation of capable communities was a kind of sewing of the Ukrainian space.”

Many of these newly empowered Ukrainian local governments have seized the opportunity, and not just for economic development. Municipalities have embraced political reforms—adopting ethics codes, making their records and decision-making transparent, establishing citizen-directed processes like participatory budgeting, and adding new guarantees for representation and participation of women, men, and underrepresented groups in local politics.

Just this past December, two Ukrainian cities, Khmelnytskyi and Vinnytsia, finished first and third, respectively, in a global contest for innovation in government transparency. Mariupol, a city in the southeast reportedly under siege by the Russian military, has won international praise for its model of sharing governance power with local organizations….(More)”.