In early March, the Ukrainian city of Melitopol fell to Russian forces. This largely Russian-speaking city was a place where the Kremlin had hoped its forces would be welcomed as liberators. After taking over, Russian troops abducted the city’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, a Russian speaker. The Ukrainian government circulated a video showing a blindfolded Fedorov being dragged out of his office. This led to mass protests, with hundreds of people demanding the mayor’s release. He was eventually let go, hailed as a hero by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and transformed into a symbol of courage in the face of Russian aggression.

Not all mayors have been as fortunate as Fedorov. In the village of Motyzhyn, outside of Kyiv, Mayor Olga Sukhenko and her family were tortured and killed by Russian forces because they refused to cooperate. After a month-long occupation, Russia withdrew its forces from the village. Across Ukraine, Russian troops have faced fierce resistance as citizens rally not just in support of Zelensky in Kyiv but also to defend their local mayors and elected city councils. For this reason, the world has gotten to know the names of many Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv, Kherson, Lviv, Mariupol, Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin, which have witnessed unspeakable war crimes. In Kherson, which has been under Russian control for more than three months, a recent café bombing near Russian headquarters showed that a resistance movement is alive and well there. Ukrainian guerrilla attacks are taking place in other Russian-occupied areas, as well, particularly around Kherson.

A major source of Ukraine’s resilience is this strong sense of local civic identity. It is the backbone of the country’s self-defense, and it helps explain why so many Ukrainians—especially Russian speakers—are so willing to defend their communities against Russian invasion. And it’s no accident that local governments have so much authority. Decentralization reforms adopted after the Maidan revolution in 2014, which overthrew the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych and came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, have played a pivotal role in building national unity. The devolution of power has facilitated greater social cohesion by transforming competing ethnic identities from zero-sum competition into positive-sum community pride. A more decentralized government has given Ukrainians the sense that they are building their own country. 

Paradoxically, Ukraine strengthened its state by devolving power. Political legitimacy in Ukraine has been built by citizens from the bottom up, and Ukraine must keep its focus on the local level as it begins to consider rebuilding the country when the war is over. 

IT WASN’T ALWAYS LIKE THIS 

Although democracy has been a hallmark of Ukraine since it gained independence in 1991, power has often been concentrated in the hands of a few. By 2014, the country was mired in corruption. Oligarchs controlled political parties and the media. Two decades of independence made Ukraine one of the poorest countries in Europe. Many Ukrainians—especially young people—believed forging closer ties with Europe and moving away from Russia would generate prosperity and a break from the past. 

At the time, the Yanukovych government represented all that was wrong with Ukraine. An ostrich farm and a golden toilet at the presidential palace symbolized the rot that had taken hold among the political elite. In 2014, Yanukovych pulled the plug on efforts to sign the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement and instead sought to join the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union. This act triggered widespread protests, which eventually became the Maidan movement. Protests in Kyiv and around the country culminated in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, which led to Yanukovych’s ouster from government and his escape to Moscow, where he still lives today.

The seeds of local collective action, which have proved pivotal in this current war, were planted in 2014. While it is common to assume that the Maidan revolution happened solely in the central square of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the revolution played out in dozens of cities in all regions of Ukraine, with citizens challenging local governments and calling for a Ukraine that looked westward. That process accelerated after Russia invaded and later annexed Crimea. Communities and civil society developed new practices and organizations to help internally displaced Ukrainians, to combat Russian disinformation, and to organize logistical aid to the Ukrainian army. 

In the aftermath of the Maidan movement, Ukrainians sought to reform their government, making it more responsive to the people. A new generation of politicians emerged, calling for an end to entrenched corruption. Reforms focused on the need for more transparent, decentralized, and accountable procurement processes. Citizens believed that more efficient use of resources and budgets at the local level would improve the standing of the country. Ukrainians felt powerless to eliminate the role of oligarchs, but they could take local government into their own hands. 

COME TOGETHER

Ukraine’s path to decentralization was creative and unique. Rather than decentralization coming from above, a new law in 2015 allowed communities to self-organize voluntarily into new local units called hromadas. Although there were some hiccups in the beginning (not all towns and villages formed hromadas immediately), gradually more and more hromadas emerged across the country. Local hromada elections in 2015 and 2020 cemented this reform since people were electing their mayors and local leadership within the borders of new communities.

Before these reforms, most revenue collected went to the central government. Now, 60 percent of local revenue stays at the local level. Thus, decentralization in Ukraine transformed governance by allowing local authorities to retain more resources and spend them more productively on infrastructure and community welfare. Such activities were previously controlled by the central government, which was inefficient, if not corrupt.

Alongside the ability to control revenue, Ukraine introduced participatory budgeting processes that allowed citizens to have a greater say in how resources were spent. Analysis of these reforms by the Kyiv School of Economics showed that hromadas collected significantly more local taxes than they did before consolidation. This meant that local authorities were spending more on infrastructure and citizens had more control over what infrastructure was being built. Research has shown an increase in per capita income in communities that formed hromadas when compared with other territories in the same period. This effect was stronger for smaller hromadas despite the expectations of many politicians who typically prefer larger administrative units. This made people prouder and more satisfied with local services and generated greater support for the reform itself. Surveys showed that in 2020, 59 percent of respondents believed that this reform was very valuable. Moreover, while in 2015, only 19 percent of respondents said their lives improved because of the reform, this number increased to 59 percent by 2020. The bottom line is that local governance reform transformed how citizens see their state.

VOLUNTEER DEFENSE

The Maidan movement unleashed Ukraine’s vibrant civil society. The move toward decentralization grew stronger after the Russian invasion of Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk in 2014, laying bare how corruption and state weakness had run down the Ukrainian military, which performed poorly because of its modest training and its lack of weapons and armor. Recognizing the weakness of the army, Ukrainians took things into their own hands and formed volunteer brigades. These local militias were able to defend territories because they consisted of volunteers fighting for their own communities. Recognizing their strength and the need to reform the military, then President Petro Poroshenko integrated these self-organized, decentralized units into the Ministry of Defense through a new branch called the Territorial Defense Force.

In January, with the whole world watching Russian troops amass on the borders of Ukraine, the new laws on national resistance went into effect. These laws, which were signed by Zelensky in the summer of 2021, introduced a system to prepare the population for national resistance. The country’s civilian resistance fighters were allowed to be trained and equipped for a possible war in advance of the Russian invasion. Under this reorganization, civilians with little or no military experience were encouraged to join these local forces that would be overseen by regular service members.

After the Russian invasion on February 24, Zelensky activated these units and began distributing weapons to volunteers around the country. Today, there are 110,000 people in these defense forces. With the ability to mobilize quickly and devise strategies locally, they have played an instrumental role in defending towns and cities from Russian forces.

SPEND LOCAL

Ukraine shows that a combination of democracy and decentralization can strengthen central government, even as power shifts away from it. This is especially important to acknowledge as Ukraine begins to think about the enormous task of rebuilding when the war is over.

Governments and multilateral donors, including the United States, the EU, and the World Bank, are developing ambitious reconstruction plans for Ukraine. It is vital that local governments have a seat at the table in designing and implementing these plans. The United States has failed in its postconflict reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years because it worked through its own organizational structures, such as provincial reconstruction teams. Such teams rarely involved local decision-makers in their activities. Too often, Washington relied on vast armies of contractors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to implement this work, generating weak, parallel, donor-created governing structures. These included district and provincial planning bodies as well as donor-directed community development councils whose presence undermined local resilience.

Ukraine strengthened its state by devolving power.

Local governments should be the focus of Ukraine’s reconstruction effort. Early evidence shows that action at the local level is more responsive on most issues than national or even international efforts. Local volunteers are much faster at securing local funding, waste little on overhead, and can operate much closer to the frontlines with better local knowledge than international organizations.

In many postconflict societies, large infusions of foreign aid have produced unwieldy donor-created projects that have more money and resources than local governments. This creates an opportunity for reconstruction projects to come in and undermine local governance institutions, not just by sweeping up the best talent from them but by giving foreigners a greater say in what happens in communities than the people who live there. This generates resentment among the residents who have no oversight over these foreign projects, an irony in a country that has fought a war to stop foreign domination. It is imperative that international donors learn from past reconstruction failures and work to support Ukraine’s hromadas and other local government structures as they help the country rebuild. Hromadas and other local authorities are not perfect, but by delivering on their promises, they have increased satisfaction and trust in local leadership by ensuring resources are spent on those who need it most.

Unlike donor projects that come and go, these authorities are accountable to Ukraine’s citizens and will be there for people when the smoke clears. These communities have mobilized citizens to defeat Russia’s assault; they can also help midwife Ukraine’s rebirth.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • TYMOFII BRIK is Rector of the Kyiv School of Economics. He was a Visiting Researcher at Stanford University in 2018 and at New York University from 2019 to 2020. 
  • JENNIFER BRICK MURTAZASHVILI is the Founding Director of the Center for Governance and Markets and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
  • More By Tymofii Brik
  • More By Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili