How Donetsk Oblast rearranges itself in the time of war
Decentralisation of Donetsk Oblast in the time of war
The process of transferring real powers to local governments has started across the country, including in Donetsk Oblast. Three communities are already operating there – Lyman, Cherkaske and Zhovtneve – for which elections took place last year. Three more are being founded now; polls there were scheduled for mid-December. It is expected that within a year 38 communities will be created with new rights and obligations. However, like almost everything at the moment in the Donbas, these reforms are being implemented on a sort of minefield. It needs to be crossed, but you never know whether something will explode under your boot, and whether you will survive if it does...
Local communities are showing initiative, but large changes cannot yet be felt: once again, reforms are being persistently imposed from the top down. The head of the oblast Pavlo Zhebrivskyi has already tried both the carrot and the stick. Dissatisfied with the speed of reform in Donetsk Oblast towns and villages, he began to publically threaten local authorities: he gave them a week to form plans and appoint officials responsible for decentralisation. He has hinted that he knows theirmotives, alleging that district and town heads are trying to hold on to their unstable positions and that businesses do not want to lose the level of control they are used to. Presumably, this did not scare them too much, so Mr. Zhebrivskyi started to travel around the oblast himself and explain the need for the formation of new local government units, which he immediately wrote about on Facebook, where he recently castigated those in power and businessmen: “Decentralisation in Donetsk Oblast is continuing. We are actively preparing people for the formation of united territorial communities. I met activists in Kostiantynivka County today. Yesterday, I had a similar meeting in BakhmutCounty. People really need to be told about it, have it explained and broken down. There are many problems. But we'll get it done.”
Indeed, there are too many problems, but the most bizarre situations can be found in the major cities of Donetsk Oblast: Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, Mariupol and Bakhmut. Decentralisation has stalled there, though the influence of local non-governmental and volunteer organisations is growing. It turns out that communes have still not been formed not due to a shortage of initiative. Bakhmut, for example, was refused association with other municipalities and elections due to the lack of an official decision on changing the boundaries of the city and county, compounded by an official's technical error. So voting was not even held there. In Kramatorsk, which was among the first to form a new territorial association, a court in late 2015 overturned the decision to create thecommunity based on procedural violations, so the locals elected their deputies and mayor under the old system. Are officials really lacking in the professionalism to do everything legally or is it more the case that some people are very happy with the "communityless" status of towns and cities?
There are also more general causes of the slowdown: from subjective ones, such as distrust in the government or apathy because of the war, to objective ones, such as the economically justified industrial conglomerations that are difficult to reshape. Shaping a new community is one thing for a few villages in a rural area, and another thing for towns and villages in the industrial Donbas Oblast, which has very specific administrative arrangements. For example, Chasiv Yar, which previously held the unclear status of "satellite town", is vainly trying to become independent by merging with nearby villages.
"We are now at a very difficult stage in our development, which is linked to decentralisation. To create a community, we must become a county town. For almost six months, this has been causing a force majeure situation in all areas: the transfer of funding, premises and organisations from the town to the county. We are renovating the future hub school. The villages covered by the Kalynivka Rural Council have already been engaged in the association. Meanwhile, the villages that are now subordinate to the KostiantynivkaCountywon’t give their consent. The leadership of the county has the same attitude, wanting to keep the villages for itself. Both the local authorities and Chasiv Yar activists have met with villagers and explained why we havesuggested
ALTHOUGH THE DECENTRALISATION OF THE DONBAS STILL CONCEALS MANY HIDDEN SURPRISES, IT IS JUST STARTING TO CHANGE PEOPLE'S ATTITUDES TOWARDS THEIR OWN ACTIVISM AND THE AUTHORITIES
forming a community together. Unfortunately, people don't want to hear plans for joint efforts. Instead, they want promises that someone is going to come and make things better," says Chasiv Yar mayor Olha Opanasenko.
And it really is hard to make promises in Chasiv Yar. In neighbouring Soledar, which is home to several major employers, including Artemsil (Artyomsol), a salt plant, eight village councils have decided to merge and elected their deputies and mayor on December 18. By contrast,Chasiv Yar is a typical case of a town where local bosses have no wish to change anything. The long-term master of Chasiv Yar’s clay quarry, Valentyn Lukyanov (father of infamous Party of Regions member Vladyslav Lukyanov) wages a constant war for his resources (which he in fact leases from the state) and blocks almost all community initiatives. He argues that, "This is all a clay pit, and there won't be a town here soon!" Clay is
extracted day and night for export and the once profitable factory now barely functions, as even its production premises were sacrificed for the quarry.
Can decentralisation be considered a safety device against owners that use state power for their own economic ambitions? It is still too early to say, given the current maturity stage of civil society, particularly in the Donbas. In order to understand who to select as their community leaders and why, people need to feel the impact of their choices: once decentralised, communities will hardly be able to blame anyone from outside for their local situation. It is still necessary to cultivate responsible, active and qualified managers for leadership positions. This takes time. Is there time during war? Civic activists who work on Donbas decentralisation do not see a problem in the fact that the reforms are taking place now. They say that the war is pushing people to be active and involved, so changes will take place quickly.
"Before the Maidan and the war, I, for one, had no inherent idea of where my homeland was. Because I was born in the Soviet Union, which doesn't exist anymore, and I didn't feel anything else. Now I know for sure that my homeland is Ukraine. So war is not only about pain, it's also a chance to bring people together. In particular, communities, which is what decentralisation is basically about," says Oleh Kucherov, an expert on decentralisation who works in Donetsk Oblast as part of the EU project Support for Local Government Reform in Ukraine.
According to Oleh, mistakes are, unfortunately, inevitable: for example, communities can emerge that are unviable for whatever reason, or local power brokers can be “crowned” to usurp power. Success is inevitable – the country does not have another option. But only under certain conditions, Oleh says: "We need to better inform different segments of the population, not just the educated and active citizens, so that there will be a critical mass of those who understand why it is necessary to take responsibility for their lives into their own hands. At the moment, it's the same as always: civil servants, teachers, doctors and librarians are invited to the various training sessions and meetings – in a word, public employees. Their main question is whether they will lose their jobs and whether there will be staff reductions. Meanwhile, the fundamental changes that decentralisation provides for communities are left without the necessary attention. It means not only more rights, but also more responsibilities. If something does not work out, it will no longer be possible to blame ‘Kyiv which doesn't give us anything’, as people are used to being told.”
We have managed to find one atypical bottom-initiative in Donetsk Oblast. Two village councils in Zvanivka and Verkhniokamyanske refused to join a proposed community with the county capital Siversk and decided to merge on their own. A depressive city without operating factories, but with social infrastructure, and just about the wealthiestvillage councils in the county could not find any common ground. After a visit from the oblast head, the future community, which is home to many natives of Western Ukraine (resettled in the post-WWII period) who do not want to lose their identity, was given a year to draw up a clear and precise development plan. It has not yet been decided how to deal with the problem of intergovernmental relations: only communities approved by a Long-term Plan will switch over to this system. The current plan contains no mention of such a community. Perhaps the financial power of the association will be too low to develop the territory, although local authorities could, for instance, persuade their fellow villagers to bring their livestock business out of the "grey" economy in order to fill the local treasury and ensure mutual development. Nevertheless, some changes are already visible. Today, one of these councils is led by a young local deputy, who is building grandiose projects alongside village activists: from creating a local public utility service provider and upgrading the water supply system to reconstructing the nursery school. The main thing is that the potential community’s plans do not talk about how much money they need to ask for, but how they can earn for the common cause.
One other widespread message is that greaterpower of communities to address their own issues may lead to the mutation of decentralisation into a malignant tumour of separatism, especially in the Donbas. But the first question here is, did the "strong hand" of the previous authorities prevent separatism in 2014, or did they thus cause it? Secondly, when the leaders of towns and counties are forced to go cap in hand to Kyiv (and probably not empty-handed) in order to get funding for schools or road maintenance, does this not itself give rise to thoughts about secession? Therefore, although the decentralisation of the Donbas still conceals many hidden surprises, it is just starting to change people's attitudes towards their own activism and the authorities. It is hardly worth expecting a powerful explosion from it. At least for now.
Motivation tours. Head of Oblast Pavlo Zhebrivskyi travels to counties, towns and villages in Donetsk Oblast to explain why decentralisation makes sense