It seems that right now there is hardly any country where the center, regions, and local communities do not have an intense debate among them – sometimes even a violent one. As experience shows, the countries who have reached – more or less – the balance between all the interested parties, are able to protect their citizens, their rights and freedoms. On the one hand, the state in such countries has effective tools for public administration based on citizens’ confidence. On the other hand, the citizens are willing and – most importantly- are able to participate effectively in the decision-making processes not only locally but also at a national level. Such kind of state and society is highly effective in their actions.
The implementation of the strategic course of Ukraine’s EU integration and further development of a democratic state with socially-oriented market economy require the creation of an effective and workable system for a local government. Such self-government institutions should meet the standards of a democratic society and ensure the implementation of rights and freedoms of citizens at a local level.
Not only is it necessary for consolidating the achievements in the formation of Ukraine as a sovereign state, but also for its development as a social state where people – not in theory but in reality – are the supreme value. Indeed, the experience of Western democracies demonstrates that only when the optimal decentralization and de-concentration of power is reached and the respect for the principles of subsidiarity and autonomy of local government becomes common, the welfare of the whole population can be improved, the rights and freedoms can be protected, and the socio-economic development of local communities, districts and regions can be intensified.
The strategy of EU integration of Ukraine gives the regional integration the key role. The basis for this integration is the European Charter of Local Self-Government and other relevant legislation of the EU and the Council of Europe. By joining the European Charter of Local Self-Government, Ukraine assumed a liability to follow the principles established in this document, which guarantees legal, administrative and financial autonomy of the territorial units and their bodies.
Reforms drag on…
During the last ten years, the need to reform local government in Ukraine has under a constant discussion – right now nobody dares to speak against this idea. But the parties involved just pay lip service to this problem. In fact, the initiation of the reform meets a rigid bureaucratic resistance. This can be confirmed by those who have been engaged at different times and different levels into working on the local government reform. Frankly speaking, the reforms are being delayed through the talks and consultations on the idea itself, and the majority of activities are just simulated. The reasons for this state of affairs are banal, yet still difficult to remove. One part of the bureaucracy is dreadfully afraid of the very idea of reforming the system, as this would lead to their loss of power, the destruction of the “gray space” of land use, and termination of free access to the budgets at all levels. The rest of them also do not want to reform the system because – as a consequence, they would have to trully change the system – not only its facade – to ensure the quality of public services to citizens instead of simplly “selling” a variety of certificates and permits.
It should be dully noted that changes in the sphere of local government, which had been proposed by previous authorities, failed due to the lack of clear and unambiguous political commitment of top management, haphazard and half-hearted decisions, lack of transparency, and lack of regular dialogue with the public.
International experience shows that in all the countries with decentralized power, the reform of local self-government was the result of an in-depth search for compromise and open public dialogue between the government, local communities and civil society.
Declarations are easier than reforms
For the first time in the history of Ukrainian legislation, the bill concerning the administrative and territorial reform was thoroughly discussed at the regional level, namely in Vinnitsa, Ivano-Frankivsk, Odessa and Lugansk. The consequence? The representatives of local self-government, who were all for the administrative and territorial reforms, and creation of the basis of local government, now – after studying the materials and analyzing possible consequences – are seriously doing some re-thinking.
The most difficult issue of the proposed reform is the creation of communities – a new base for self-administrative units. The discussed document contains regulations that such communities must consist of at least 5,000 people. Let us consider the matter: today in Ukraine there are about 11,000 village councils. The population of some of them amounts to only 75 people, while 15 of them (!) are members of the local Council. At the same time there are rural communities with more than 7,000-10,000 inhabitants. The difference is impressive. The villages with fewer than 5,000 residents reach about 95% of all units. What does it mean? It means that after the refom most rural councils will simply cease to exist. Instead of them, there will be around 4,000 new communities. For justice sake, it should be noted that according to the bill, as an exception, there can be 3,500 people in a community, and sometimes (in the mountainous regions) even 1,500. Of course, not everyone likes that.
The second point of concern is the formation of districts. The current division of Ukraine is unbalanced and inconsistent. Sometimes there are 7,000-8,000 people in a district, but such a unit can also contain160,000 people. Regardless, in both cases, the communities have their own state and executive authorities, prosecutors, tax authorities, etc. In most developed countries the territory of a state is divided into districts, which are approximately the same, i.e, their system is balanced. Given the current situation, the bill, which is currently under an active discussion, provides regulations defining that each district must accommodate approximately 70,000 people. As a result, the total number can be reduced by half. It is clear that this project is a direct threat to the bureaucratic apparatus at the district level, because with the restructurisation, the number of posts can be cut and many administrative officials would lose all power and resources.
The reform is not an end itself
The reform of the administrative-territorial structure is not an alternative to the tax, judiciary or any other reform. Moreover, the reform is not an end itself – it aims at organizing local self-governing. Today, the local government is in crisis for lack of structures, bodies, and adequate resources to fulfill its mandate. First of all, it concerns the financial resources based on their own revenues. Talking about a serious reforming – creating a self-sufficient local government – is unrealistic without the territorial base and budget for a government.
Currently, the state budget has to work with 15,000 local budgets. As a result, there are so-called intermediates: regional and district budgets, which become a kind of means of pressure on the local governments, putting them in a dependent position, although – according to the Ukrainian Constitution – it should be quite the other way.
The majority of rural and local councils are simply unable to provide themselves with necessary resources. Imagine a council in a village, where the number of citizens is between 500 and 1,000 people. By the way, if you ask a village’s leader, what his job is, he would be really proud to tell you that he gives out, for example, references for social assistance, to sell cattle (!). Their responsibilities are not adequate to the function of local government. Therefore, one of the objectives of the reform is to ensure the “principle of subsidiarity” – it means a better approach of administrative services to individual citizens. To do this, on the one hand, it is necessary to enlarge a community, and – on the other hand – to provide it with all the necessary material resources, which means giving more power to local authorities while taking it away from those on the higher level.
Thus, the changes in the territorial structure are not the end themselves. They are just a part of a bigger reforming process needed for a radical restructuring of the existing model, which would determine its further effective – or ineffective – functioning. What will come out of it – we will see…
Translated by MA