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Decentralisation in Ukraine: First steps taken

Having ratified the Association Agreement with the European Union, European Atomic Energy Community and other ally states Ukraine stepped into a new era – era of new challenges leading to radical changes. The incentives to tackle the challenges are numerous: not only Ukraine will benefit itself by reforming outdated governance system, it will also get closer to the EU membership having implemented the demanded reforms, known as the Copenhagen criteria. Decentralisation is one of the reforms and it is high on the government’s agenda right now.

Decentralisation map
Decentralisation is about letting go of Soviet system of heavily centralised government. Credit: http://decentralization.gov.ua

Decentralisation and the Constitutional Reform

One of the objectives of approved by President Poroshenko’s Strategy for Sustainable Development “Ukraine-2020″ is constitutional reform. Following this step, on Tuesday, March 3 President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree by which the Constitutional Commission was created. Commission was established to propose amendments to the Constitution that would build the ground for satisfying the needs and aspirations of Ukrainian society. The President insisted that formation of the Commission was “a very important phase of constitutional reform”.

The Constitutional Commission consists of three groups and is working on the following issues:

  • Decentralisation;
  • Reform of the Judiciary (appointment of judges, immunity of judges, etc.);
  • Reform of the Prosecution Service.

Reinforcement or rather total rebuild of the local self-governance in Ukraine is an important contribution to realising democratic principle of decentralisation of power. Unfortunately, creation of truly independent and autonomous territorial communities, enshrined in the Constitution, was not always implemented in practice. Reformers encountered a lot of problems trying to distribute power between local state administrations and local councils. But the lack of political will has not been the only impediment to the successful decentralisation. In addition, the mechanisms to achieve independence and autonomy of local self-governance bodies, especially with regards to decision-making, was not precisely defined in law.

On 16th of July, 2015 288 Ukrainian MPs voted for sending Constitutional Amendment Bill to the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to assess whether it contravenes the current Constitution or not. The document was also sent to the European Commission for Democracy through Law, or Venice Commission, with a view to receive its opinion as well. The latter has provided its point of view (preliminary opinion) very quickly. The Venice Commission concluded that:

«The draft amendments introduce a form of decentralization in the exercise of state power which is largely compatible with the European Charter on Local Self-government. Overall, amendments are well drafted and deserve support. To overdue abolition of the supervisory powers of the Prosecutor General is particularly welcome. The article on local finance should also be highly supported».

Consultation of the Venice Commission and the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada. Credit: Verkhovna Rada
Consultation of the Venice Commission and the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada. Credit: Verkhovna Rada

Decentralisation Strategy

 

Constitutional Amendment Bill's Framework on Decentralisation
  • The executive power in regions and rayons (districts), in Kyiv and Sevastopol (to be specified in other laws) is given to local state agencies instead of local state administrations. The local state agencies are headed by prefects.
  • Prefectsare appointed by the President of Ukraine on the proposal by the Prime Minister. In addition, prefects are accountable to the and are overseen by the Cabinet of Ministers.
  • Prefectssupervise the work of local self-governance bodies; coordinate the work of territorial organs of central executive organs; ensure the interaction between the latter and the organs of local self-governance in times of war or emergency; ensure the implementation of state-sponsored programmes.
  • Prefectspass the acts on issues that concern their respective territory. The President and the Cabinet of Ministers have the right to revoke these acts.
  • This system is built on the principle of decentralisation instead of the combination of centralisation and decentralisation (as it is now according to the article 132 of the current Constitution).
  • The territorial system consists of such administrative units as community, rayon (district) and region.
  • Local self-governance shall be exercised by a territorial community directly (by conducting local referendums) or in other ways determined by law. This reads as an obligation if compared to the current Constitution, which says that a local self-governance is “a right of a territorial community”.
  • Community councils, as a representative organ and the executive organs of self-government bodies, are the organs of local self-government.
  • Community councils provide organs of self-organisation of local population with a financial support.
  • Material resources, on which organs of self-governance will rely on, are land, movables and real estate, local taxes and so on.

Provision on local referendums is of particular significance. It represents the democratic vector of Ukrainian governance system reform. Further, there are safeguards against abuse of this process: a comprehensive list of issues that can be voted on in a referendum is included in the Constitutional Amendment Bill. These include: budget approval, socio-economic and cultural development programmes; establishment of local taxes, etc.

Challenge accepted?

Amending the Constitution is the first step to decentralise governance in Ukraine, and solid moves in this direction have been made. Further steps on the road to deeper and more comprehensive governance reform – and possibly EU membership – include changing the way the Constitution works (if the amendments are approved). Since 1996 the very first article of the Constitution has defined Ukraine as a democratic and welfare country abiding by the rule of law.  If it was the case we would never have had two Maidans. The European Union expects Ukraine to prove that decentralisation efforts are not just «reforms for the sake of reforms» or superficial compliance with Minsk agreements (pacta sunt servanda after all), but that country will root out the old system of governance and build a modern European one instead. The challenge has been accepted – the results are being expected.