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23 June, 2017  ▪  Stanislav Kozliuk

Danubian Principalities

Decentralisation started in Odesa Oblast almost eighteen months ago. The initiative was sometimes successful in the north, while the south has seen a fundamentally different process

In Odesa Oblast, as at one time in the Donbas, the image of the region's particularity and large difference from the rest of Ukraine is often cultivated. If we ignore pro-Russian sentiments, the only thing that remains is the multi-ethnic character of the population, which in practice gives rise to certain intricacies in local politics. Ukrainians and Moldovans, Bulgarians and Gagauzians, Romanians and Russians all live in Bessarabia. It seems that this factor is playing if not a crucial, then at least a rather important role in the decentralisation process.

Uniting pains

There have been attempts to launch the process of community amalgamation in Odesa Oblast almost since the relevant law was adopted. Roundtables and seminars on decentralisation were held in the oblast to ascertain the attitudes of local officials towards such initiatives. The result was that the heads of towns and villages have no burning desire to support reforms and would prefer leaving everything as it is to becoming involved in changes that offer them vague prospects for the future. There are no guarantees that they would be part of the governing bodies elected after the new communities emerge. Instead, the idea that the essence of decentralisation is to "destroy the countryside" was spread among the local population, although no compelling arguments were put forward in support of this thesis.

"In 2015, we started with a roundtable on international conflicts. The Izmayil and Reni counties were there. It was said that there are no problems with interethnic tensions, but there is the issue of decentralisation. Allegedly, people in the countryside 'will lose their jobs' and 'villages will be destroyed'. As there are many different nationalities in our region, the fact that Bulgarians and Moldovans apparently would not be able to agree on the distribution of the local budget between themselves was given as an example of 'murder'. But this argument is rather primitive, as they all get on well in county councils at the moment. There are no problems with the allocation of funds," decentralisation expert Svitlana Hud tells The Ukrainian Week.

She adds that the "national question" comes up every few years. For example, representatives of the Moldovan community complain that the Romanians have more preferences. Or ethnic minorities reproach schools for not teaching in their languages. “Such complaints usually come from representatives of minorities in Odesa, not the countryside. It seems they do not account for the fact that their child will later go to university, where subjects are taught in the state language", adds the expert.

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Some politicians, campaigning against the territorial reform, also refer to problems in inter-ethnic relations. They argue that the reform would stall because of the multi-ethnic character of Bessarabia. According to them, Bulgarian villages cannot be merged with Romanian ones, which in turn cannot join Moldovan or Gagauz settlements.

"There is a widespread view that if we merge Bulgarian and Moldovan villages into one territorial community, for example, and the community leader will be a Bulgarian, he will not stand up for the interests of Moldovans. And vice versa. Unfortunately, this issue is often used for manipulation in Reni and Bolhrad counties. The problem also exists in Izmayil County, but it is slightly less pronounced," adds Hud.

Off the record, local officials point the finger at MP Anton Kisse, a member of the Vidrodzhennia (Renaissance) Party, a spinoff of the former Party of Regions. Yulia Molodozhon, director of the Office of Reforms in Odesa Oblast, adds that "Kisse is not directly opposed to decentralisation, but the communities in the district, which elected him to parliament, are making no effort to unite".

"At one time, Kisse held an entire conference in Kyiv on the fact that decentralisation allegedly ignores the interests of Bulgarians. And in general there are a number of media outlets that regularly publish his position on the reform. His constituency is the areas around Bolhrad and Artsyz. For some reason, no activity to unite communities is visible there," says Molodozhon.

But man shall not live by ethnic problems alone. The financial standing of the population adds extra issues to the merger of communities. Local officials assert that northern Bessarabia is poorer than the south, so more merged communities arose there. The Office of Reforms observes that it is necessary to take into account the specifics of the region. Since there are more small hamlets of several hundred people in the north, the residents do not have much choice. Whereas in the south of the region villages can have 2-3 thousand inhabitants each and are reluctant to unite.  As a result, the north of the region currently has nine merged communities, while the south has two.

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"In the north, there is a typical farming settlement pattern. Unlike the south, there are many villages, but with few residents. So people are willing to join forces and the mergers are taking place. But there is a caveat: it is necessary to unite a large number of settlements to make a viable community. Given that they are scattered over a large area, it is difficult to manage such an association. So various options are being considered," explains Molodozhon.

In addition, experts point out that settlements and towns in the region, despite the delays in reforming, receive additional funding from the state. Consequently, budgets are overfulfilled and local authorities are sometimes unable to absorb additional funding. The reform complexity is thus conserved: while no new jobs are created or investments made, budgets continue to swell, allowing officials to report on their "successful" work to the public and cancelling out the pros of the reform.

"Many rural councils are overperforming in terms of their budgets. They don't know what to spend money on. It's similar with town councils. Officials report on increasing budgets. But in practice this is due to subsidies, as there are neither new jobs nor investment," explains Hud.

But mainstream politics is perhaps the biggest problem on the path to reform. Or rather, the majority system that allows MPs to be continually elected to parliament in certain regions. This is in reference to the "good deeds" that most constituency MPs have rather successfully been using in recent years. This is enabled by the public money distribution system that goes from the oblast centre down. As a result, in the event of urgent problems village mayors are forced to go cap in hand to the oblast centre or MPs. Alternatively, representatives of a candidate running for a seat in Parliament may visit the village mayor and promise him, say, a full set of new windows for the local school (not always at their own expense – Ed.). The mayor, in turn, is obliged to provide them with the "right" votes. In such cases, it is not even necessary to resort to electoral fraud. It is enough to explain the locals who arranged for their renovated school, new road, playgrounds and so on. If approached rationally, the merged communities should in theory gain financial independence. As a result, it will be harder to buy votes for constituencies with these cheap handouts. In addition, there are great chances that the Central Election Commission will redraw constituency boundaries, which will add extra trouble before coming elections. It was political interference that local authorities in different parts of the oblast complain most about.

"It is impossible to say whose interests MPs are defending when they openly or otherwise oppose decentralisation. But, more than anything, it looks like electioneering. After all, when financial resources go from the oblast centre to the local level and communities can manage their own finances without appealing to MPs, then what will these politicians be left with? Most likely, they are struggling for their electorate and spheres of influence," explains Molodozhon.

The next big problem stems from the previous one: in Ukraine, some heads of village councils have held their positions for decades and have long become a modern equivalent of feudal princes, endowed with power and authority. If they work together with their constituency MPs, they almost turn into a “deputy God” in their district. Predictably, they are quite happy with the frozen situation in Odesa Oblast and have no desire to consider reforms.

Slow changes

Reni County is almost the smallest in the oblast and is home to about 40,000 residents, half of whom live in Reni, the rest – in seven surrounding villages. Local authorities started to unite communities before local elections in 2015. In accordance with recommendations, the oblast drafted a plan to split the county into two communities: one was to unite the villages of Dolynske and Lymanske with the town of Reni, while the second should have been made up of the villages Novoselske, Orlivka, Kotlovyna, Plavni and Nahirne. Reni tried to create a community, but violated the procedure. As a result, the process was stopped. After local elections, the new authorities started work on decentralisation, but met problems on the way, from the reluctance of village mayors to make concessions to the passivity of the county council and administration.

"The head of the county administration should go around the villages, explaining the nature and benefits of decentralisation. Ideally, of course, the chair of the county council and the mayor should be there too. In practice, we tried to start the process, but the county council and county administration took a back seat. We went to the villages and explained what the processes are about. But then the head of the Reni administration intervened and said something like "We don't need these associations" in private. In the villages we heard "We don't need anything, we already live quite well," Reni mayor Ihor Plekhov complains to The Ukrainian Week.

Svitlana Hud confirms: the country council's contribution to the decentralisation process in Reni is minimal. "No one even monitored what exactly Reni County Council has done for decentralisation. If you take this into account, there have been no explanations and no measures taken on the matter. The documents haven't even been prepared," said the expert.

It is quite easy to explain this passivity: according to the plans, the county council and administration would be cut back. As a result, dozens of minor officials would have to enter the job market in search of work. The law makes no provisions for their future. So, faced with an uncertain post-reform future, district officials are in no hurry. This, in turn, leaves the problem of triple power overlap unsolved. In other words, a town or village actually has three heads: that of the local council, county council and county administration. And each has their own ambitions, which do not always benefit local communities. Decentralisation could make a difference and finally create a single decision-making centre (not three).

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"I would find it interesting if we moved away from triple power. Because now, for example, our town has a mayor, a head of the county council and a leader of the administration. And everyone has their own political ambitions. Nothing good comes of this. For instance, a clinic is being built in our city utilising oblast resources. But from time to time the Reni County Council gets involved in this project. In the end, our town has an unfinished building that a lot of money has been pumped into, but there is no result," explains Plekhov.

The local residents we were able to speak to responded to the reform initiatives with cautious optimism. Not least because of the hope that the budget of the town and surrounding villages will grow and this will make it possible to spend more money on the essentials: road repairs, street lighting and gas and water supplies. However, local authorities cannot give an exact date for the creation of a community due to previous negative experiences.

"Maybe people think that if they are far from Kyiv, the reforms will not come to them. When we spoke with village mayors about merged communities, we heard something like 'This amalgamation will do nothing! In the future there will be elections, the political system of the country will change and the reform will be forgotten’. In September 2016, we tried to start the process of creating a community at the initiative of the councillors and the mayor. There were public debates, then we sent village mayors our proposals for mergers and asked them to invite us for discussions. They never replied," said town councillor Oleksandr Balaniel.

"But in the villages, fears have spread that the mayor of Reni will come to take away their land, schools and nurseries. And that he's just going to steal instead of working on development," complains the local representative.

In addition, officials state that village heads' fears about decentralisation could be strengthened by the fact that land in the region would have to be brought out of the shadow economy. According to them, most farmers in the region currently work without paying taxes. After the unification of communities, a land inventory will be prepared and money should come out of the black market and into community budgets, which could be unprofitable for officials accustomed to "dirty" revenue streams.

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By contrast to Reni’s feeble attempt at decentralisation, it is hard to say what is happening with the unification of the second community, which should include five settlements. For now, only the fight for the status of community "capital" between the villages of Orlivka and Novoselske is visible. According to the plan developed by the oblast, Novoselske should become the centre, but its neighbours disagree. And it is safe to assume that the business interests of certain politicians had an influence there.

"About a year ago, I spoke to the head of Novoselske, which should be the centre of the community according to the plan. I complained that the village of Orlivka is trying to grab the biggest piece of the pie. The reason was that they have plans to build a ferry to Romania. Which means new infrastructure, investment and business. MP Kisse supported Orlivka’s ambition. When Nososelske mayor was offered to set an example and start the amalgamation, he replied, "’What if the community doesn't elect me? What's the point then?’ So even here self-interest comes into play," notes Hud.

Such suggestions by Kisse are nothing extraordinary, because he was the coordinator of the ferry project in Orlivka. A closer look reveals more interesting details. At the time, the general director of Orlivka Ferry Complex was Yuriy Dymchohlo, who is now deputy chairman of the Odesa Oblast Council. In public, he usually appears in the company of MP Kisse. So in the future, the struggle for central status in the community of five villages will only pick up steam.

Meanwhile, local officials prefer the idea of the “one community per one county” division, which will leave the county as it is. This is despite the fact that the distance from Reni to the furthest village is about 60km, while the recommended distance is up to 35km. Reni Mayor doubts that he would be able to provide a settlement so far from the centre with everything it needs. Nevertheless, some bigger, neighbouring districts such as Bolhrad and Izmayil have made similar proposals, although they cover more than 20 villages.

In general, it is safe to argue that the legislators have played into the hands of all those who oppose decentralisation in Reni County, Odesa Oblast, by not defining clear deadlines or frameworks. While less wealthy settlements have no choice and are forced to merge under the circumstances, the richer and larger ones refuse such initiatives, citing their ability to provide for themselves. They have even come out with an initiative called "One village – one community". However, the viability of these amalgamations is questionable for financial reasons. Still, despite these teething problems, decentralisation is progressing in the oblast, albeit slowly. In Reni, local councillors are trying to make plans to develop the still non-existent community in the future by attracting funds from alternative energy and tourism, among other things. At the same time, experts say that, despite everything, we can expect the emergence of several communities in Odesa Oblast in the near future.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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