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International Implications of Ukraine’s Decentralization

The local governance reform that Kyiv started in 2014 will, if successful, have cross-border repercussions by way of making the Ukrainian state more resilient, compatible with the EU, and a model for other post-Soviet republics.

International Implications of Ukraine’s Decentralization

The currently ongoing decentralization reform in Ukraine leads to beneficial effects for the everyday life of citizens. Public administration becomes more rational, flexible, visible and interactive. State-society relations strengthen, and democratic accountability increases. As transparency of resource allocation increases, opportunities for realizing corrupt practices are gradually reduced. Economic activity in, and cross-regional rivalry of, local communities are facilitated. Cities, towns and villages can easier cooperate with each other, but also compete for direct investment, touristic visitors, project funding, qualified personnel, and public resources. Talented youth in provincial regions can better self-realize at home. Patriotic energy is redirected from mythologizing imagined to improving real communities. Civic activism is encouraged and utilized for the public good.  Grass-roots initiatives can faster transform into efficacious public policies and become templates for nation-wide innovation.

In Ukraine, these and
similar positive effects of decentralization, in general, gain additional
weight in view of the country’s significance as one of Europe’s territorially
largest nations, civilizational frontier states, crucial post-Soviet republics,
and geopolitical pivot countries. Whatever course Ukraine takes in its domestic
affairs has, because of the country’s international emanation, larger
implications. The fate of the Ukrainian transformation, not the least of the
local governance reform, will deeply affect pan-European security and stability,
post-communist socio-economic development, as well as East European
liberalization and democratization.

increases resilience

First and foremost,
decentralization makes Ukraine as a state and nation more resilient. Along with
other reforms, it reduces, suppresses or contains various post-Soviet
pathologies of public administration and local development. This effect, in
turn, is not only of municipal, regional or national, but also – in view of
Ukraine’s geopolitical role – of international relevance.

decentralization devolves power to a level lower on, and to communities smaller
than those in, which most of the old informal networks operate. This makes
state-capture by private interest not impossible. But it complicates the
subversion of the public sphere by private interests. It is true that
decentralization sometimes simply transfers the locus of a corrupt network from
the national or regional to the local level. In certain cases, it can even
benefit clans that have been hitherto functioning within a municipal context.

On the whole, however,
decentralization in Ukraine – like everywhere else in the world – strengthens
rather than weakens democratic accountability
, and promotes economic
development. Newly empowered self-governing bodies are more exposed to public
scrutiny and responsibility by their local communities than Ukraine’s byzantine
administrative organs inherited from the Soviet system. When ambitious
entrepreneurs encounter a local – rather than regional or national – political
framework, their industriousness is more likely to turn into political and
developmental rather than informal and extractive activity. On average,
Ukraine’s novel Amalgamated Territorial Communities (ATCs) are thus less
susceptible to subversion by semi-secretive networks and rapacious rent-seeking
than the old oblast (regional) and rayon (county) administrations and councils.
The new ATCs are – more than the older, far less powerful and smaller communes
– motivated to engage in competition with other ATCs for attracting investment,
charming tourists, providing services, and gaining fame.

Decentralization thus
makes the Ukrainian state more stable, functional and effective. Ukraine’s
increased resilience and greater dynamism supports its general modernization.
Whatever makes the largely pluralistic and liberal Ukrainian state stronger –
rationalization, Europeanization, decentralization, privatization, deregulation
etc. – undermines, in turn, the legitimacy of the klepto- and autocratic orders
of other post-Soviet state. By strengthening Ukraine’s democracy and economy,
its decentralization helps – because of Ukraine’s size and role in Eastern
Europe – changing the entire post-Soviet area for the better.

improves cohesion

Second, in addition to
making Ukraine’s state more solid, in general, many Ukrainian politicians have
come to also see decentralization as a peculiar antidote to Russia’s hybrid
warfare, in particular. Not only does deeper involvement of ordinary Ukrainians
in governmental affairs via decentralization support the national cohesion of
Ukraine’s population and civic spirit of her citizenry. The currently ongoing
devolution of power to the local level in Ukraine deprives Russia’s various
hybrid warriors of customary institutional frames and critical entry points for
seditious action. A decentralization that is not a federalization complicates
the targeting and planning of irredentist operations similar to those in
Simferopol, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. As regional capitals and governments
gradually lose political relevance, it becomes more difficult for the Kremlin
to clearly delineate territories where it may want to support a secession
or/and prepare an annexation.

These anti-separatist
effects of Ukraine’s decentralization have, in turn, not only a national, but
also an international dimension. To the degree that local governance reforms –
along with other ongoing transformations, in Ukraine – help to support Kyiv’s
independence and to stabilize the Ukrainian state, they undermine Russian
revanchism. The stronger Ukraine, the less plausible looks Moscow’s
neo-imperial project and the Kremlin’s hegemonic pretense in the former Tsarist
or Soviet space. As Zbigniew Brzezinski quipped famously in 1997, “without
Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”

supports Europeanization

A third geopolitical
aspect of Ukraine’s decentralization is that it supports Ukraine’s ongoing
integration into the EU’s political and legal space in connection with the
Eastern Partnership program started in 2009, and Association Agreement signed
in 2014. Decentralization helps preparing Kyiv’s forthcoming application for,
and eventual acquisition of, full membership in the Union. In a certain way,
Ukraine’s decentralization is a more fundamental aspect of Ukraine’s gradual
Europeanization than other dimensions of this process partially influenced from

Being a Ukrainian project
inspired by, but not modelled on any one foreign example, and not following any
pre-defined Western recipe, decentralization is in two ways significant. First,
it is a visible manifestation of Ukraine’s turn-away from the Tsarist and
Soviet centralist traditions of its past, within the former Russian empire. The
very idea and start of the Ukrainian decentralization reforms documents the
“European” character of Ukraine. It is practical proof of the civil, pluralist
and open character of Ukraine’s political tradition and culture.

Second, the ongoing
transition’s accumulating results are making Ukraine more and more compatible
with the Union. The member countries of the EU are, in general, more or less
decentralized. To one degree or another, many continue to further decentralize.  They, moreover, follow the well-known
subsidiarity principle in their relations with both Brussels and their own
regions as well as municipalities. The more deconcentrated and subsidiary
Ukraine becomes, the more similar it will thus look to other European nations,
and the better she will later be prepared for full accession to the EU.

The national origins and
Europeanizing effects of Ukraine’s decentralization are not only important in
terms of the spread of Western values and principles. They have also a larger
geopolitical dimension. In as far as Kyiv’s local governance reform expresses
and advances the “European” character of Ukraine, it demonstrates her belonging
to the Western normative and cultural hemisphere. That, in turn, makes
Ukraine’s ambition to enter the EU and NATO a more natural affair than it may
have otherwise been.

provides a model

A final – and, so far,
speculative – geopolitical aspect of the ongoing transformation of Ukrainian
self-governance concerns its cross-national diffusion potential.
Decentralization in Ukraine can, in the future, provide policy directions and
institutional templates ready for use by other, so far, highly centralized
post-Soviet states in their forthcoming reform efforts. This concerns not only,
but above all Russia herself for which a decentralization along the Ukrainian
localist rather than the older Russian federalist paradigm may one day become

As time goes by, each of
the post-Soviet republics will become affected by gradual social modernization,
cross-national norm dispersion, democratizing intra-elite divisions as well as
international economic integration. These processes will more and more change
all, so far, politically underdeveloped and culturally regressive post-communist
countries. When governmental crises, competitive disadvantages, and general
backwardness create sufficient pressure for deep reform in Russia, Belarus,
Armenia, Azerbaijan or/and Central Asian, their nations will be looking for
ideas and experiences that may help them to reconstitute their immobile
societies and remake their inefficient states.

The possibility or even
intention of cross-border diffusion is, of course, something im- or explicitly
entailed in many reform concepts and efforts around the world. The Ukrainian
local governance reform may, however, be of an even larger geopolitical
salience because of its above-mentioned nation-building and anti-secessionist
effects. The Ukrainian type of decentralization is not only an instrument for improving
state-society relations. It can also function as a tool to stabilize regionally
divided states threatened by separatist tendencies. In the same way that
devolving power to local and municipal levels helps Ukraine to hold its
territory together, an application of her decentralization model may one day
also support other post-Soviet states to remain unified. This concerns not the
least Russia whose sheer size and multi-ethnic character make her especially
vulnerable to autonomism and secessionism.

as an under-estimated reform agenda

The above list does not mean that local governance reform is a panacea for Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Yet, its Europeanizing, anti-separatist and diffusion potential makes it an especially salient, interesting and consequential aspect of Ukraine’s ongoing socio-political transformation. Within the context of some specifically post-Soviet political challenges, the empire-subverting and state-supporting dimension of decentralization bestow this particular reform in Ukraine with a larger meaning than other substantively similar processes of devolution of power from the national and regional to the municipal and local levels have in other parts of the world. Neither the overcoming of the Tsarist-Communist empire nor the formation of new nation states are yet finished businesses, in the post-Soviet area. Decentralization may do the trick or, at least, be one of the main instruments to effectively meet both of these daunting challenges.


A longer version of this article is forthcoming, and has benefited from advice by Dr. Valentyna Romanova (National Institute for Strategic Studies, Kyiv). Responsibility for remaining imprecision lies, however, solely with the author



Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has held fellow- & lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, and Catholic University of Eichstaett. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia ( as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (

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