Kiev hatches a power-sharing formula for its regions. Will anyone listen?

The plans would end Kiev's vast powers and give regional governments much greater control over their own affairs, a key demand of pro-Russia rebels.

By , Correspondent

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    Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard at the entrance of the seized regional government headquarters in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, today.
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Volodymyr Groisman, a deputy prime minister in Kiev's embattled interim government, has what must be the toughest portfolio of all: minister of regional affairs.

But he has a plan to counter the pro-Russian rebels across Ukraine's restive east who demand a radical devolution of power from Kiev to the regions.

His idea? To implement a radical devolution of power from Kiev to the regions.

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Mr. Groisman, a large, gruff man, says Ukraine's state system, which concentrates virtually all power in the central government, has been a perennial source of dysfunction in a country with 24 disparate regions. If previous leaders had been willing to devolve more powers to the grassroots, he believes, Ukraine might have avoided a decade of recurrent political crises.  

"If we'd begun these basic reforms 10 or 15 years ago, Ukraine would be a successful European state by now," he says.

Fixing the problem

Groisman, who served as mayor of the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia for eight years, reckons that the authorities should be elected at every level, from municipal to regional to national, and that they should have as much power as they need to attend to local affairs.

Under his plan, the controversial practice of parachuting in from Kiev regional governors with vast powers would simply be abolished and replaced by a central government appointee who has no executive authority. Issues would be solved where they arise, Groisman says. Localities would have appropriate taxation powers as well as the political clout to regulate local business, protect minority rights and languages, build infrastructure, and even determine economic relations with neighboring regions and countries – a common demand of the Kremlin and anti-Kiev partisans. 

"I once heard [former Prime Minister Mykola] Azarov talking at length about a bridge to be built in Kiev. I thought 'that's ridiculous. Why is a prime minister occupying himself with a bridge?' When problems that come up at a low level are sent to the top to be resolved, that's disastrous," he says.

Groisman's blueprint for sweeping decentralization comes mainly from studying local governance in Poland. It should be ready by year's end, and the first wave of local elections under the new system could take place in 2015, he says. 

Whether the interim government can even make it through the next few months is no sure thing: Ukraine faces an imploding economy, Russian troops on the border, and rebels in the eastern region of Donetsk threatening to hold an independence referendum this weekend.

But the concept of addressing Ukraine's internal divisions by spinning off power to the regions has long been under discussion in Ukraine and even has some staunch academic supporters among the Ukrainian diaspora in the US and Canada.

Ukraine's regional divisions have sharpened over the past decade. Those in the mainly agricultural and Ukrainian-speaking west hope for greater association with the European Union, which expanded right up to Ukraine's border when Poland joined in 2004. Whereas the heavily-industrialized Russian-speaking east looks more toward Russia, which saw a doubling of living standards in the first decade under President Vladimir Putin, and has also become far more assertive in its own neighborhood.

Meanwhile Ukraine – which had a pro-Western president for five years after the 2004 Orange Revolution, and then elected the now-deposed pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 – has stagnated economically and sunk ever deeper into a pit of corruption and oligarchic cronyism.

"The main culprit in our troubles is not Russia, but Ukrainian leaders and their circles, who, over the past 20 years have been running Ukraine like a plantation for their own enrichment," says Sergei Gaidai, a Kiev-based political consultant. "As a result, Ukraine's national institutions are underdeveloped. We have a country, but we don't have a state."

A balm for east and west?

It's not clear whether rebels in the east, who use the Kremlin-authored term "federalization" to describe their demands for greater autonomy, would be satisfied by Groisman's plan.

Russia has not spelled out its definition of "federalization," but it would clearly involve the right of eastern Ukrainian leaders to set their own foreign policy to some degree, in order to maintain strong links with Moscow. Groisman says he suspects the Kremlin wants to turn Ukraine into something like Bosnia, which has three presidents representing separate ethnic cantons, and complete paralysis at the central level.

"If you ask me whether this [decentralization] plan will make Ukraine stronger and its citizens freer, I would answer definitely, yes," says Groisman. "If you ask me whether this will satisfy Putin, I just don't know. But I don't think so."

He says his reform plan has many opponents, especially within Ukraine's entrenched bureaucracy, but also among some political forces whom he declines to name.

One of those would certainly be the ultra-nationalist Right Sector, a paramilitary group that helped to spearhead the Maidan revolution that brought the interim government to power, but now distrusts its intentions, particularly when it comes to power-sharing. 

"These reforms suggested by Groisman are intended as practical concessions to the separatists in the east, but they are a path to nowhere," says Oleg Odnorozhenko, a Right Sector leader. "The post-Yanukovych local elites want to preserve the old system, but gain more control in their own regions. It's a fake reform."

But the idea does appear to have support among Kiev political experts. Most argue that the Maidan revolution has created Ukraine's best – and perhaps last – chance to break away from its post-Soviet malaise and chart a new, democratic, and modern path.

"Call it whatever you like, federalization, decentralization, or enhanced local self-government," says Vira Nanivska, honorary president of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev. "Let's just do it, properly and to the end. And that's how we'll defeat Putin."

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