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22 March, 2021  ▪  

Reforms: Resistance and fragmentation

While Odesa’s City Council gets to work, the Odesa Oblast Rada is drowning in scandals and remote counties live their own political life

Southern Odesa Oblast has seen ideological, commercial and national interests come together, giving the region a particular political flavor. Ukrainian Bessarabia has a rich history and unique system of cultural interaction among different ethnic groups. This very diverse and idiosyncratic territory whose inhabitants have their own ideological preferences and interests, making it anything but easy to find common ground with their neighbors. 

No desire to unite

Located a couple of hundred kilometers from the oblast center, with a diverse mix of ethnicities, links to many émigré communities in the EU, including Romanian and Bulgarian, all have made Bessarabia a kind of «interest club.»This became especially noticeable during the institution of decentralization reforms, which failed to gain local support. The traditional fear of all things new among the local population was compounded by serious outside influence in the form of discrediting the new concept. For those who had put down roots in government and didn’t want to lose their power, decentralization was inconvenient.

One of the grey eminences in southern Odesa Oblast is Anton Kisse, a man of considerable local authority, especially among the Bulgarian diaspora to which he belongs. Even during the triumphant ascendancy of the Sluha Narodu [Servant of the People] party, he was one of the few who managed to gain a seat in the Verkhovna Rada in the FPTP 142nd district without running for the presidential party. Kisse is a long-time regional who then joined Nash Krai [Our Land], and now is in the Za Maibutnye [For the Future, a party belonging to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy. – Ed.] party.

Anton Kisse promotes himself as a protector of minor ethnic minorities on the territory of Ukraine. In 2015, the MP publicly stated that he did not understand how the reform of local government was supposed to take place in Ukraine. He even wrote an appeal to then-PM Arseniy Yatseniuk demanding an explanation of how decentralization would affect southern Odesa country. Kisse actively raised the «national issue,»involving ethnic communities in the debate who, while they live close together and peacefully, have no desire to give up their interests. Kisse himself has never actually said anything against decentralization. On the contrary, in official speeches he has emphasized the need for this reform. However, he saw it taking place rather differently. Among others, his appeal to the PM mentioned the example of Izmail Oblast, which had existed until 1954, before being handed over to Odesa Oblast.

Prior to the local elections last October, seven of Odesa Oblast’s counties had failed to establish a single unified territorial community (UTC). Four of them are precisely in the southern part: Bolgarskiy, Ismzilskiy, Saratskiy and Reniyskiy counties. Among the residents of many population centers, common opinion was that after establishing the communities, hospitals, schools and other social institutions in smaller towns and villages would be shut down. These fears were stoked by national interests as well. For the region, it’s common for ethnic groups to live compactly in separate settlements. For instance, Bulgarian, Moldovan and Gagauzian villages often lie right next to one another. Yet every village has its school where children learn the language and customs of their people. And so there was considerable manipulation: supposedly after unification, there would only be one main school for the entire county and children would lose the opportunity to learn their mother tongue.

In those towns of Bessarabia that actually began the unification process, there was considerable felt resistance to the process at all levels. Typically, it manifested as bureaucratic obstacles on the part of the county administrations that did not want to lose their influence. There were even efforts to block the work of UTCs through the courts.

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Shifting powers, shifty politicians

After counties were amalgamated in the oblast, their number went down from 26 to seven. In Bessarabia, only three remained: Izmailskiy, Bolgarskiy and partly Bilhorod-Dnisrovskiy. The other counties lost their authority and resources. Some of them have been trying to remain afloat by setting up pocket territorial communities. Starting in 2015, opinion circulated that the population centers in the southern part of the oblast were completely self-sustaining and did not need to cooperate with others. After a while, the idea was floated that amalgamation should take place in the format, one county = one community. But nobody bought into this because of the considerable territory covered by the counties. Still, other sources of leverage were found.

Among others, interest in the topic of local government caught interest even in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. They were following the course of reform in Ukraine and expressed concern about whether Bulgarians in Odesa would be able to preserve their national identity after the change of administrative structures. For a time, there was even a notion to give Bulgarskiy county special status. In 2018, Bulgarian Vice President Iliana Yotova came on a working visit to Odesa Oblast and asked for guarantees that this ethnic community would be able to be taught the Bulgarian language and culture. In 2020, the Bulgarian legislature expressed disagreement with the reforms to the administrative and territorial structures in Ukraine, calling for protection for the interests of the Bulgarian diaspora. This happened literally as the process of establishing new communities and counties was being wrapped up.

This tension is having a negative impact both on the course of reforms and on trust in local governments. During the election of local deputies and mayors, voters of Bessarabia focused not on political parties but on separate individuals. Thus, the newly-established Bulgarian UTC was headed by Serhiy Dimitriev, who first became mayor of the town in 2015. At that time, he ran for the Opposition Bloc, and now he represents OPZZ. Dimitriev himself has more than once been central to scandals regarding embezzlement of budget funds and hooliganism, but this did not affect the preferences of Bulgarian voters, which have been strong for the last five years. Where 10 deputies were elected from the Opposition Bloc earlier, this tim, 12 were elected from OPZZ. The Pensioner’s Party was represented by 3 deputies in 2015, and only two now. The number of deputies from Nash Kraialso shrank from seven to four. Meanwhile, the new party Za Maibutnye gained five seats – local MP Anton Kisse himself switched from Nash Krai to Za Maibutnye.

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The desire to elect the same faces is also evident in Izmail. True, these same political elites entered local councils under the Sluha Narodubrand, gaining 65% of the local vote. Most likely this is connected, once again, to the individual deputies and representatives of local governments who ran for this party. The current mayor of Izmail, Andriy Abramchenko, is a good example. He also ran under the Sluhabrand in 2020, and got 80% of the vote, based on his performance in his previous terms as mayor. Earlier, Abramchenko ran for Party of the Regions, and then in the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, and now he’s a member of the current president’s party.

After the 2020 local elections, the updated counties will operate under new rules. It’s not quite clear yet just what powers they have and the newly formed UTCs are still preparing to get to work. One of the dangers is that the county councils, which have no powers, will begin to deal with political issues. This kind of precedent was already observed in other oblasts. For instance, the Sumy County Council not long ago approved a decision regarding protests by FOPs [Physical persons who are antrepreneurs. – Ed.] in the capital, although it has no relation to this at all.

Part of the elite has managed to preserve its leverage by changing parties, taking on the position of mayor of one UTC or another, or gaining a seat in the county council. How they plan to continue to promote their political interests will be evident soon enough. In any case, the last five years have shown that they will undoubtedly try take advantage of ethnic issues.

Maria Shevchuk, Odesa


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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