10.02.23 Review

Communities and Hromadas: how effective self-governance reform has helped Ukraine to resist the invasion

Vladimir Putin constantly repeats the (false) assertion that in 2014 a coup d'état in Kyiv brought an end to any form of legitimate government in Ukraine. In fact, 2014’s revolutionary events paved the way for the country’s crucial reforms, the most important of which has been the introduction of more meaningful forms of self-governance. The success of this reform laid the foundation for the implementation of horizontal and networked mechanisms of governance, based around local communities. This helped Kyiv to continue to support grassroots self-organisation, while at the same time maintaining citizens’ trust in the local authorities, when the war first broke out. This has ensured the consolidation of Ukrainian society in the face of armed aggression. This process has significantly contributed to the country’s ability to effectively withstand Russian aggression. The confrontation between Putin's Russia and Ukraine’s hromadas has been, among other things, a confrontation between hyper-centralist and horizontal systems of governance.

As we approach a year since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it has been evident that the Ukrainian armed forces have proved to be much more effective than anyone, including both aggressors and allies, had expected. While paying tribute to the determination of the military and political leadership, experts note that their efforts would likely not have been enough had ordinary Ukrainian citizens and local elites failed to remain loyal to the country and self-organise in the face of military aggression.

Researchers of Ukrainian politics believe that prior to the Maidan protests — the revolutionary events of 2014 — two key trends had been present in relations between the Ukrainian centre and the regions. On the one hand, there was a highly centralised system of management, whereby the regions did not have any real budgetary or administrative autonomy. Local governments also depended almost entirely on the financial and administrative decisions made in Kyiv. On the other hand, there was a noticeable uptick in territorial fragmentation and polarisation. This fragmentation occurred as a result of both Ukraine’s traditional geopolitical division (the West and South-East), and of the significant differences in living conditions and quality of public services between cities and towns, between industrial and agricultural areas, and so on.

Prior to 2014, Ukraine’s system of local self-governance, although characterised by robust political competition during both mayoral and council elections, did not have a sufficient degree of decision-making subjectivity. Public opinion polling at this time demonstrated that trust in local authorities was low. There were a number of factors behind this: underfunding, the poor quality of municipal services and the inability of local authorities to respond to requests from below, as well as the low motivation of citizens to participate in self-governance. At the same time, people demonstrated higher levels of trust in their local authorities than they did in the national government.

After 2014, the new authorities initiated several local government reforms under the guidance of the European Union. Their main goal was to create effective territorial municipal units (hromadas), with the active involvement of residents, significant financial autonomy in the allocation and spending of funds, and clear accountability to local communities. By 2020, the reforms were considered complete and had received positive preliminary assessments. As researchers noted, the quality of public services in areas such as medicine had risen, as did citizens' satisfaction with these services. There was also a significant improvement in the quality of fiscal administration at both regional and local levels.

However, with the beginning of the Russian invasion, other less trivial consequences of these reforms became visible. Oleksandra Keudel and Oksana Huss, who have conducted a number of sociological surveys in the hromadas, as well as interviews and focus groups with local activists and officials, have noted that after the Russian invasion, hromadas in Ukraine became the de facto backbone of national consolidation. They also played an important, politically unifying role at the grassroots level and were the only type of authority able to effectively communicate with citizens in the first months of the war. Of the 241 hromadas surveyed, two-thirds continued their activities despite the military aggression, 28% did not stop working at all, and 43% returned to work within two weeks of the invasion or after de-occupation. Of the 17 de-occupied hromadas in the sample, two continued to function under occupation, providing humanitarian assistance and evacuating residents.

As a result, compared to pre-war levels, trust in local authorities has increased during the war. According to a September 2022 survey, local governments in Ukraine enjoy the highest level of public trust among the population, after state and civil institutions directly responsible for security. 63% of Ukrainians trust their mayors and the same number trust their local councils. Keudel and Huss note that ‘high levels of public trust indicate public recognition of local governments' commitment to their communities and their responsibilities as community representatives and public service providers.’ Thus, effective systems of local self-governance have contributed to the political consolidation of citizens and helped provide the foundation for the ‘new normality’ of life during the Russian invasion.