Can activists defend community interests even if outwardly undemocratic forces control local government?
A group of activists in the village of Bobrytsia, Kyiv Oblast, develop and realise initiatives, such as street-art festivals (se photo) or construction of cycle lanes. They also engage other locals in discussions and crowdfunding
Over a little more than two decades of independence, bona fide feudal principalities were formed in some regions of Ukraine, where the hypothetical head of a county stays in office for at least 15 years, his brothers, sisters, relatives and in-laws long entrenched in government agencies. These "family businesses" will do anything, except defending the interests of local communities. Which, in fact, vote for the same people from election to election, sometimes for buckwheat, sometimes for new benches outside their houses, and sometimes simply for idle promises. Active citizens, after years of fighting such a system, could be forgiven for being disappointed and giving up, convinced that they have no influence and it is easier not to interfere with "dirty politics".
Nevertheless, practice shows that the situation is nowhere near this critical.
The kingdom of darkness
Local elections, however strange this might sound, could become a key tool for implementing change. Despite a number of obstacles. Indeed, these recent elections offered few opportunities for new political forces and civil society activists to make it onto local councils without cooperation with big parties. One reason, according to activists, was the new law passed a few months before the election campaign. It only allows party nomination, thus limiting opportunities for active community members to nominate themselves as candidates. In addition, it is now harder for small, local political parties to be elected, as the electoral threshold was increased (from 3 to 5%) and a rather large deposit is required to take part. In addition, there are no restrictions on the use of advertising during campaigning. Therefore, local political movements without strong financial or media resources found themselves on an uneven playing field with strong national parties.
The Maidan failed to give boost to new political forces at the regional level. Active social groups were unable to unite into a non-partisan movement that could compete with the old system. For example, there is a significant percentage of conscious citizens that are ready to defend their interests at the regional level in Kharkiv, despite the proximity of Russia and the Occupied Donbas. However, there is no standout leader that these Maidan activists and volunteers could get behind. Instead, the majority of the new parties are in fact political projects that appear just before the election, and afterwards – vanish into thin air. They do not usually have an extensive network of offices in the regions, nor a history and ideology.
What’s more, activists emphasise that in most Ukrainian cities, even Kyiv, the level of self-government and community involvement in decision-making is very low. Communities are not always well-informed about draft resolutions. Not to mention modern forms of self-government, when it is not the representative body, but the communities themselves that are involved in the decision making process. Using petitions, electronic voting and so on. Incidentally, activists note, such forms of governance have long been popular in Europe. At the same time, even socially active Ukrainian citizens have no desire to find out about these tools in some places, never mind the majority of local people. And the further you go into the regions from the central cities, the worse the situation is. Especially in small villages and towns.
Activists that we were able to talk to in various regions of Ukraine say that not all issues are resolved locally. For example, the Central Election Commission in Kyiv influenced recent mayoral elections involving odious figures in Kherson and Kharkiv, among others, even though there were probably plenty of reasons for Hennadiy Kernes or Volodymyr Saldo, for example, to not have got onto the ballot paper. Activists are convinced: if Kyiv will continue to make compromises or arrangements, solving "problems" with money and behind-the-scenes agreements, then the situation will remain unchanged.
With the system or against the system
Despite these grim facts, there is cause for cautious optimism. For example, some political forces that were elected to councils support increased transparency and openness from local authorities. Among the proposed measures are the publication of draft resolutions and decisions adopted by local councils and executive authorities, as well as the introduction of online inquiries and petitions. Such political forces may not have the necessary majority in many councils to introduce these transformational standards. But with support and persistence from the community, they can realise new initiatives while being in the minority. For example, a number of local councils in Ukraine have adopted regulations requiring local deputies to declare conflicts of interest if a draft decision may concern them personally, their family or business. Activists believe that this requirement will safeguard against corruption in the regions.
In addition, active community members insist that it is necessary to work with the local population and explain the need for new initiatives, thereby winning the support of the people. Indeed, activists agree that this is a long and complex process that will not bring quick results. However, the recent elections show that a part of society is increasingly focused not on colourful outdoor advertising, but ideas and hard work.
Most people that we managed to talk to emphasise the fact that it is possible to change the system and confront not exactly honest politicians by other methods than force. This is an extreme step, as we saw in Vradiyivka, Mykolayiv Oblast, where there were mass protests in 2013. Again, Kyiv could help in solving problems. Or more precisely, the national parties that at least declare support for democratic principles. Ideally, large political players in these small "principalities" could resist the "czars" that essentially occupied the regions. By putting forward their candidates, these political forces could oust district-level oligarchs.
However, it is not worth relying on external help alone. Ukraine has enough examples of communities implementing their own initiatives in defiance of local authorities or in cooperation with them.
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Indeed, there is a village in Kyiv Oblast called Bobritsya, where individual members of the community decided to work on developing their area without being part of the village council or other government bodies. They created an initiative group and charitable foundation to raise funds for various projects. Subsequently, this initiative group produced a development strategy for the village and submitted it to the local council for consideration. At the same time, awareness-raising activities were conducted with local residents and they were actively involved in discussing projects. In this way, the activists managed to implement a number of initiatives: holding a street art festival, installing notice boards in the village, organising cycle paths and so on. This format allowed them to avoid conflict with local government and involve community members in the management and implementation of initiatives alongside the authorities. But even in the absence of dialogue with the authorities, work with members of the community, if it is active and interesting suggestions are made, will sooner or later lead to an increase in their popularity and support among the people. This, in turn, creates an opportunity for the initiators of the projects to be elected to local councils in the future and, having the necessary powers, implement their initiatives.
The last local elections are proof of this. For example, Anna Herashchenko, not widely known among the general public, won mayoral elections in the village of Tyahlova, Kharkiv Oblast. Activists stress that she went to a reasonably Sovietised and pro-Russian village, but was able to unite people, find support for her initiatives and, ultimately, win the elections. In Kherson Oblast, blogger Dmytro Voronov became mayor of small town Tsyurupinsk, while in Hlukhiv, Sumy Oblast, first place was taken by Michel Tereshchenko, removing a protégé of regional oligarch Andriy Derkach from office.
In a recent poll, Razumkov Center, a sociology group, has found that 73% of Ukrainians fully or partly agree with the statement that political parties which spend a long time in power always have tainted reputation. So they only believe new political forces and their leaders