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Is Decentralizing Ukraine Possible?

The Ukrainian state, as currently structured, is obviously dysfunctional. It claims to be unitary and centralized, but it lacks the capacity to be unitary and centralized. The result is the Yanukovych sultanate: a hierarchically organized and highly centralized polity that is incapable of sweeping the snow from capital city Kyiv’s streets.

What’s the solution? At one time, Yanukovych and the Party of Regions insisted that the answer was decentralization of power to the regions. As soon as they seized power in Kyiv and realized that centralization is the shortest route to wealth enhancement, their decentralizing aspirations went out the window, and Yanukovych the regionalist became Yanukovych the sultan. There was a time as well when the Regionnaires flirted with separatism for Ukraine’s eastern provinces. That, too, went the way of decentralization when they tasted the fruits of power.

Unfortunately, the Regionnaires aren’t alone in preferring centralization to decentralization. Every Ukrainian president—from Leonid Kravchuk to Leonid Kuchma to Viktor Yushchenko—has concentrated power in his hands. But remember: centralization is not some typically Ukrainian impulse. When left alone, most states at most times concentrate power. The American colonies moved from a confederation to a federation, Abraham Lincoln amassed great powers in order to stop Southern secession, and Barack Obama has actively pursued the buildup of what’s been called the “security state” in the “war on terror.” If decentralization occurs, it’s usually in the aftermath of some big crisis, when breakdowns take place or appear to be a distinct possibility and radical solutions suddenly appear plausible.

That said, the case for decentralizing power from a profoundly incompetent and corrupt central state apparatus in Kyiv to the provinces or regions is persuasive. It’s not that government will suddenly become more responsible and democratic. After all, there are crooks at all levels of Ukraine’s fabulously malfunctioning bureaucracies. The difference that decentralization can make is fivefold.

First, even if local crooks can steal with as much impunity as central crooks, they can’t steal as much. The opportunities for theft, being local, are by definition smaller. Second, local crooks may actually have a slightly greater incentive to do something for constituents who know where they live and with whom they may have once shared a beer. Third, local crooks have to rely on inefficient and underfunded local police forces to crack down on protesters—which means that coercion isn’t as viable an option for them. Fourth, local crooks may actually have an interest in improving living conditions in their locale: after all, they live there. And fifth, if locals are given more power, they can’t blame the center for their failings. Put these five factors together and it’s just possible that local populations will be able to exert some pressure on the crooks down the block and make them behave.

Most of Ukraine’s regional policymakers and populations probably wouldn’t object to decentralization. The problem is with the central authorities in Kyiv. For the Yanukovych Family to give up power is to commit political and economic suicide. Chances are that they’ll contemplate such an alternative only if a big crisis explodes and their backs are to the wall. If decentralization strikes the sultanate’s elites as the only means of saving their skins, they just might consider it (although I suspect they’d sooner pack their bags, abandon ship, and hightail it to the Riviera). Such a crisis would probably have to involve a series of local Orange revolutions in many of the provinces, and especially in the east. The way the Regionnaires are driving the country into the ground, that may not be as unlikely as it seems, but don’t hold your breath. Not yet, at least.

Another obstacle to decentralization is the more generalized fear among Ukraine’s political elites that it could lead to separatism, on the rationale that if you give ’em an inch, they’ll take a mile. Such fears are greatly exaggerated, though not because there are no secessionist tendencies. Ukraine’s eastern provinces have since the early 1990s consistently expressed a distrust of independence and a marked preference for unification with Russia or a return to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for eastern Ukrainians, they’re ruled by Regionnaires, who will never permit their bailiwick to join Russia. Annexation by Moscow would immediately transform the Regionnaires from local crime bosses to Kremlin gofers and, far worse, subordinate them to Russian organized crime and oligarchs. The Yanukovych Family would go out of business in such dire circumstances.

Western Ukrainians, meanwhile, although they’re increasingly talking about their regional interests, are highly unlikely to separate from any political entity that bears some resemblance to their vision of Ukraine. Should the Yanukovych regime ever transform Ukraine into an anti-Ukrainian Little Russia, however, all bets would be off and secessionist tendencies in Ukraine’s west would certainly increase.

Imagine for a moment that, miraculously, Ukraine wakes up one day and finds itself divided in two halves. Would they be worse off? The East could join Russia. The West could join Europe. And everyone would live happily ever after. Except that it would never work. The European Union and NATO just might take a democratic, stable, and poor western Ukraine under their wing. But no semi-rational Russian state would ever voluntarily annex a rust belt seething with anger and doomed to underdevelopment.

One final point: whatever the solution to Ukraine’s ills—decentralization, separatism, democracy, rule of law, market relations—the single most important obstacle to any kind of change is the Party of Regions. If the Regionnaires secede, Ukraine has a chance. If they stick around for long, the country is pretty much doomed to, at best, permanent stagnation.

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