Ukraine has a talented, highly educated citizenry, yet fundamental flaws in its political system prevent strong and responsive leadership from emerging and assuming roles in the national government. These systemic flaws can, and must, be fixed for Ukraine to become the free democracy her people deserve.
Under the current system, Ukraine’s local officials are appointed by a centralized, national authority. This differs from healthy and vibrant democracies such as Poland and the Czech Republic, where local elections determine regional leadership. Ukraine’s local leadership is often drawn from a politically homogeneous group of politicians more attuned to each other’s interests than to the interests of the population. As a result, the political establishment cannot evolve, innovation is discouraged or inexistent, regional and minority interest groups are afforded no voice nor safeguards, and instead the country is saddled with a stagnant and incestuous political “elite”.
As a result, amid skirmishes for regional control and political jockeying, political evolution can express itself only through mass protests and Maidans. Such mass movements are expensive and existentially disruptive, and do not yield the systemic changes needed. They elevate popularly acclaimed leaders who inevitably succumb to the entrenched political system riddled with corrupt reactionaries, and some evolve into dictators themselves. The vicious cycle continues.
Yanukovych is to be held personally responsible his regime’s corruption and for ordering police to shoot at and murder his own peaceful citizenry, but he could not have committed his crimes without the tacit consent of many other government officials. Too many in government serve at the pleasure of the president. There is no incentive for them to serve the people rather than the president. The system needs to re-align the self-interests of regional politicians more with the interests of the people they serve, and less with the president.
The most recent Constitution strikes a better balance of power between the President and Parliament, but as in earlier versions, the President still appoints all provincial governors. This virtually assures that governors will be the president’s proteges or lackeys, as any incumbent president is unlikely to appoint rivals who might emerge as competitive candidates in national elections. Furthermore, as long as the appointed provincial governors are perceived to be loyal supporters of the president, they will be unable to develop any credibility or rapport with the voters. This leads to an alienated and disenchanted citizenry which takes to the streets, as there is no other recourse to combat centrally-selected political appointees disconnected from the population they are supposed to serve.
Thus the critical issue is not one of achieving a balance of power between the president and the parliament, but of achieving a balance of power between the Ukrainian electorate and their national leadership. Until that is addressed, Ukraine can expect a stagnant and unresponsive political establishment, and periodic mass upheavals.
Until locally elected officials are granted genuine authorities, Ukrainian democracy will remain disappointing and fragile. At present national elections offer the winners some prestige, but do nothing to develop the broader pool of leaders on whom the success of Ukraine’s democracy will ultimately depend. Local government offices should serve as the lifeblood of a stream of candidates who earn the trust and the right to hold a higher public office. In other countries, trusted candidates for national leadership emerge regularly from among governors and mayors who have proven themselves by serving their oblasts or cities.
The genuine delegation of authority to locally elected officials will help assure that the policies of local governments will reflect the preferences of the local residents instead of the preferences of the presidential ruling party. Locally elected councils already exist in each oblast of Ukraine. Constitutional reform granting local councils the power to elect or appoint their own governors could be a critical step towards easing regional tensions and building stronger democracy in Ukraine.
It appears that the political climate in Ukraine is ready for such a reform. Leaders in both Eastern [http://www.scmholding.com/en/media-centre/news/view/1487/] and Western [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cMWPAPSx8I#t=140] Ukraine have already called for a significant expansion of the authorities of local governments. Political decentralization and local administrative reforms would sent a strong signal to local communities their equities will be preserved through any major political changes in Kyiv, which will not violate local rights and governance.
Decentralization of governance must be undertaken with great care, but the sooner it takes place, the better. Having responsible and trustworthy institutions of local government, people will have confidence that their rights will be honored and preserved. They will not need to seek a dictator, either domestic or foreign, for protection.
The question of constitutional reform belongs to the people of Ukraine. The international community hopes Ukraine will find a way to build a strong sovereign democracy. More information is available at the website of the Ukraine decentralization initiative.
Roger Myerson is the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. He was awarded the 2007 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in recognition of his contributions to mechanism design theory.
Tymofiy Mylovanov is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh. He has an MA from the EERC at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy program (currently, Kyiv School of Economics) and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Dr. Oksana Lassowsky and Igor Buinyi contributed to the article.