Why don’t we start with the most general question? Who is the main ally of decentralization, in your opinion?
- I think local authorities. Those who understand that decentralization is the tool that could be used for the development.
Who is the main enemy of decentralization then?
-Those who are eager the resources to accumulate in the center. So that the money could be «sawed»and they could generally do whatever they want.
How long did it take you to make out the reform for yourself?
- Two weeks. In fact, until the summer 2019, I was not involved in the reform. Of course, I dealt with issues of local self-government and others, but not with the reform itself. I suppose, in July 2019, I met Olexandr Kornienko [now the Chairman of the Party Sluha Narodu [Servant of the People] and a member of the Verkhovna Rada Decentralization Committee. – Ed.]. He mentioned that the reform should be completed before the local elections. I asked for two weeks and during that period of time I talked to the expert community that had worked on it before. That was exactly the point of the reform succession, because we have kept all the expert pool. In two weeks, actually, there had already been a plan of implementation. No matter what, we completed it.
When you got to the Parliament, were there any other spheres of activities for you: another committee, different issue?
- I have chosen this committee deliberately and planned to head the subcommittee from the issues of local self-government at first. But the dialogue about the necessity of the reform to be completed and the requirement of a reliable person pushed me to go to administrative system. So, I did not consider any other options or another committee.
You are one of the people from BRDO. Now, after the resignation of the Honcharuk government, there are less people like you who are in charge. Did it somehow affect your relationship, for example, with the current government?[BRDO is the office of the effective regulation. The analytical center was established in 2015 with the assistance of Ministry of Economy and international donors of Ukraine in order to make decisions to simplify doing business. A lot of people from it got to Volodymyr Zelensky’s environment, in particular former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and several members of his government and deputies from the Sluha Narodu. – Ed.].
- I don't think it should somehow affect. In general, the composition of Rada and executive branch were significantly renewed, and approaches have changed. The point is not in the environment you came out, but in the ability to collaborate. Firstly, when we talk about the pool of people from BRDO, it's not just about those who actually started in this organization – the thing is, there are much more people related to it. Secondly, now the number of them has really decreased. However, this does not affect the work and efficiency, it is the availability of knowing people willing to work for the result. It goes different in each situation.
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I am asking, because half a year ago, for example, when community plans and new zoning were adopted, you highly praised the government and said it was doing a lot. But now the opinion has changed. For example, in an interview with the Dzerkalo Tyzhniayou stated that there is no efficient vise prime minister for normal communication. Why was it good without him six months ago, and now it became worse?
- I think everyone is responsible for his own result. If there is one, there will be no claims. If there weren’t any action but broken promises, it affects the attitude of some members of the ruling team to the others. However, the situation is quite appropriate for work. We have what we have, no matter what we want.
What promises do you find broken?
- Everybody knows the situation with the Budget Code. I don’t think it is possible to promise something to the representatives of the local authorities and act vise verse in real life. [It stands for theexcise duty on fuel, 13 % of which were left in the budget of the communities. Planning the budget for 2021 the government were going to get rid of this position but during the voting in parliamentit was kept. The shortening of the budget of the National Fund of the Regional development was also criticized. – Ed.].
It seems the main problem in the relations between the government in the capital and the local authorities, so as in the whole society, is the lack of trust. There are always people who think that everything will become as it was previously after one has played decentralization. Is there any possibility to prevent such discussions?
- It is impossible to turn the reform backwards. Despite the fact that some politicians are trying toappeal to the highest judicial institutions, it is not possible all the same. 1469 communities which received the resources and authority,will come and struggle with those people. I am not trying to frighten, but that will mean a new Maydan. That is why I do not believe it is possible.
It was your idea to mention about courts. There are some appeals to the Constitutional Court or to the Kyiv District Administrative Court from the communities, which are not satisfied with the decree of the government about the new type of zoning...
- I’d recommend those communities to work with better lawyers. Their calls have no prospects.
But there is court and the trial. It goes about trust. As for law there is one point of view but the reality often shows another one.
That is true. The Court can decide anything. But we should give it a precise look. They are not the communities who appeal to the court. They are mostly local politicians, who lost something due to the changes that had happened. The key disputes and appeals, in fact, are not about communities and regions. They have their own surreal relations. Almost all the resources and rights are taken away from the regions. One could think there is nothing to fight for. Some politicians though clearly understand they are loosing their influence and won’t be able to share the territory as they want. That is why such processes start. It is not the position of the citizens. The fact that one local landlord blocks the road with the help of his 20myrmidonsand appeals something somewhere in court does not always mean the position of the citizens. Indeed, there are some cases with the decisions that are not perfect. There the opposition is natural and fair. These cases though are the minority. So, I don’t see the way to turn everything backwards.
On the other hand, there was a project in The Ukrainian Weekduring the previous elections, where regional correspondents lightened the situation in the regions. I paid my attention to the fact that people started to talk about the necessity of the municipal police and in some cities the citizens were dissatisfied because their city has lost special status of the «regional city». When will the communities have enough of authority?
- As for the authorities, there are enough of them now. The hard process of reorganization should be overcome in order to start working. It will finish when people notice that all the services became closer to them. Nowadays we have a new map and other provision. The branches of healthcare, education and administrative services ought to be reorganized. I’d like to mention about some consequences, by the way. Isn’t it irresponsible of the government to make a division into medical regions if they don’t have administrative service? Or a new net of courts? These are basic things. To build a house you should start with the basement. You do not start building at once without any preparations. These are also obvious problems, which are to be solved. As for the talks about the electivepositions of judges, police, and sheriffs… There are, of course, local politicians who have become national-level politicians. So, they are rocking the issue. I find itunacceptable. I have only one but rather convincing argument: as long as we have a conflict in the Donbas – no elected «sheriffs»can appear. As soon as we do this for the communities (even if we theoretically assume that everything will go right, which I doubt because there is another side to the coin), Russia will always use this argument against Ukraine in the context of resolving the issue of temporarily occupied territories. Therefore, this can’t be done and, of course, there won’t be any concessions.
Is it possible that the inertia of the reform will play a practical joke with us?
- To prevent this, we just need to restart the administration system. It works poorly. There is a natural conflict based on two foundations. The first one is hiden in the Constitution. These are executive functions in administrations. Frankly speaking, it is the government in the community or Oblast, elected by the residents. People have gained trust and a representative mandate. So why should the state bring down the representative who directly runs money and projects? This is a conflict. The state must supervise, secure, and stop illegal actions. It should not interfere into the money issues of local governments. If we could solve the problem, the balance would be gained.
During the time of Petro Poroshenko, a certain step was done. The positions of heads of regional state administrations became political. There can be no efficient interaction between central and local authorities if, a person is also politically engaged by the pro-government party. The appointee is neither a civil servant nor a representative of an institution, but only a political figure. Of course, this is a conflict. As the current election campaign has shown, the center will be opposed to local toffs. This is generally destructive for the state. So, now everyone needs to take a step back, exhale and reconsider the rules of the game. I hope everything will work out.
You’re right; the lack of trust is the problem. It is possible to improve the situation only if we achieve our goals together. If we are talking about the new district zoning or the «cities of regional significance», the status doesn’t actually bother clever minds. The point was different. The cities of regional significance had another way of financial relations. There was straight relationship with the center, instead of communities. They were afraid not to have a penny in case we stop the reform. As soon as the changes to the budget code were accepted, we shook our hands and they understood we can be trusted. We can move on only in such a way. Then there was some fear that #3651-d [about the share of the authority of communities and districts – Ed.] would not be voted for. Well, they voted for it, and the same was done. Something else is needed to be done though.
It has been a year since the changes in the Constitution a for the decentralization revolt in the Parliament. There was an interesting story. The document was actually turned down due to the editorial mistake. Did you really have a consensus or there was another reason?
- To collect 226 voices is hard but possible, whereas 300 voices is already a big problem. I think that text was incomprehensible, and that is absolutely correct, that the president turned it down. It required a step back and a careful look from the both sides: local authorities and the parliament. Voices should be found. I hope we will have a new appeal in 2021 and it will become a political consensus between the parties and the groups ready to vote. The position of European Solidarity is another issue. It stood up against the bill then, that was weird. Zelensky’s bill is 90% similar to Poroshenko's bill. There was only one difference: Zelensky’s project did not have anything about the special status of ORDiLO. Everything else was the same. That is the policy though. The minimal number of changes (I think there should be four of them) has all the perspectives to go through the parliamentary hall and collect 300 votes.
What four changes are you talking about?
- To introduce the term «community». Remove district councils, which are elective bodies at the subregional level. Create prefectures instead of Oblast State Administration and Regional State Administration. To form executive committees at regional councils.
Could this be that point we have been talking about?
- Well, yes. Nobody will bring down any changes to the Constitution. In our case, institutionally speaking, the reform should start with changes to the Constitution. But we remember that story: grenades nearby the Rada, because of the special status of ORDiLO. Now we need to strenthen the reform by changing the Constitution.
Let's talk about the process then. When the last winter was over, changes were promised in the spring and then in the fall. However, there is no project yet.
- I don’t want to shift the responsibility, but I’m not really responsible for this project and I was focusing on other things. I think we should always strike a balance between open public statements and the need to achieve results. I think it's time to sit down, complete the text and make it. This is my point. Now there have been some personnel changes in the President’s Office [Serhiy Trofimov has been replaced by Kyrylo Tymoshenko on his «regional»position. – Ed.] we should understand that Kyrylo Tymoshenko needs some time to have matters into his own hands and start moderating this situation. In my opinion, where consensus could be reached, it was reached. Therefore, after the holidays we need to make it right. Why do I talk about the consensus where it is possible? Because three basic level associations will never agree with the association of regional and district councils on the issue of liquidation of district councils. The Association of District Councils cannot support the liquidation of district councils. That is why such things still need to be done on a state level.
How does this process work? You have already mentioned the Office of the President, which is, in fact, responsible.
-Not quite that. The process actually began in February 2019. We even organized a series of public consultations in regions. I visited Lviv and Vinnytsia Oblasts, where we gathered three Oblasts. My colleagues were also traveling. We planned to end it all with a big final event in Kyiv and then fly to the Council of Europe.There was even an agreement on their positive conclusion. But COVID-19 happened. In fact, the whole process was paralyzed. Frankly, when such discussions take place, working online is not exactly what can be done instead of real, physical work in the regions.
Did you have to fly to the Council of Europe with the four changes you mentioned, or was it something else?
- Four changes are my idea, as everything should be. Then it was a decision to complete the text on the basis of the points we agree in regions. We were going to fly with it. Our position was clear: if these are the rules of the game for local self-government, then it should make them up. They criticized our project, we agreed to theirs, that is, to act as a conductor. But if I wrote, I would focus on four things.
In your opinion, if in a certain draft of changes to the Constitution there will be a special status for Donbas, what will it turn out to be?
-This means that changes to the Constitution will not be voted for. I do not see any prospects and no need. The position remains stable. Decentralization took place in Ukraine. The authority, opportunities and resources have increased. In case certain bodies are interested in obtaining these powers within Ukraine, everyone will be happy if it is possible to integrate these territories back peacefully. I thinknow they have to look at it carefully and, if there is such a need, analyze whether such an approach is right. Of course, Ukraine is interested in regaining territory, but not by undermining its own statehood at the level of the Basic Law.
Regarding to the cooperation between the parliamentary committee you represent and the Ukrainian representatives in the TCG [Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine]. Leonid Kravchuk and Vitold Fokin were invited to a committee meeting during their stay there. Was it done to distance themselves politically from what was connected with them?
-Why? I am not at all a supporter of the fact that we should distance ourselves. I support cooperation. Let's put it this way: I am against bringing the situation to a point where the committee has to use the right of parliamentary control and call someone. Normally, it should be agreed not only between our committee, but also between other committees with the representatives of the TCG that we regularly (well, behind closed doors, this is correct) meet and exchange positions and opinions. We should understand where we can strengthen the TCG, as well as understand how and why they turn to a certain topic, so that to cooperate normally.
There are two reasons the Fokin case to appear. First, there was no interaction. Secondly, Mr. Fokin has obvious problems with pro-Ukrainian ideology. So, I sincerely want the process to work out. We promised the chairman of the Donetsk Oblast Military Civil Administration in February to hold an external meeting of the committee in Donetsk Oblast. I hope that there will be members of the TCG and we will finally be able to make a clear plan.
There are no problems, for example, with Oleksiy Reznikov. We have a great relationship and we constantly communicate when needed. The majority of deputies have this tool. As this is a matter of national security, all political figures must be directly involved. When there is miscommunication, the political struggle begins. The political struggle is destroying the situation from within. Why should we do this? I understand politicians who simply benefit from this. However, there are pro-Ukrainian political parties, and for them it is a problem of miscommunication.
Why did your committee start communicating? After all, there is a security committee?
That’s because there were theses on the peculiarities of local self-government. Someone said something for us in an interview. For example, it was told what the Verkhovna Rada should do. Moreover, it happened without any dialogue with representatives of the Verkhovna Rada. This is wrong because we are the subject. We proved that we are the subject, and we are going to prove it further. Therefore, with all my respect to the members of the TCG, it is necessary to start a dialogue. At the same time, I understand that the security sector, like international politics, is directly subordinate to the president. Thereare no questions of distrust here: we completely trust in our president. We agree to his theses, claimed during the meeting in the «Normandy format». It goes about implementation of agreements and the inadmissibility of Mr. Poroshenko’s legacy. But we are all people who will need to implement the legislation if decisions are made. To search consensus at the meeting and in society. You just can't lose interaction and contact here.
Now what about those who can potentially vote for the same constitutional changes? In an interview with Dzerkalo Tyzhnia you mentioned a certain coalition.
- That’s right. «Decentralization Coalition», which includes four entities: Sluha Narodu, Holos [Voice], Za maibutne [For Future] andDovira [Trust].
… And when you look at this list, you may get the impression that decentralization is perceived differently by everyone.
- I do not think so. I have no problems with any of these subjects. They may be different in terms of origin.
No, I'm talking about differences in views on completing the reform.
- I don’t see that. In addition, it should be understood that certain things are now agreed very quickly. We even learned to feel the direction. In particular, the text of the bill on the mayor was completed today. It is a draft and several issues still need to be resolved. We organized a working group, wrote the text, I dropped the project to Olexandr Kornienko, Roman Lozynsky (Holos), Oleh Kulynych’s team (Dovira) and Taras Batenko (Za maibutne) and I got four answers «for»in 10 minutes. Because everyone understands the logic and just checked (because we realize that it’s still politics) that there was nothing odd. In fact, our project is ready for registration on Monday. In particular, there is trust. I do not only mean the group.
In summer, your party stated that the campaign in the local elections in Kyiv would be based on the idea of a new law on the capital. Now there is another thesis that this law can be forgotten. Why did this happen?
- I think that because Kyiv has a special status in the Constitution. As for the capital it is possible to clearly differentiate the powers of central and local government without changes to the Constitution itself. Simply, the Kyiv City State Administration should be transformed into a prefecture. You can save the name, but the body itself will perform the functions of the prefecture. I am sure that that law could have been adopted in November 2019. However, the bill, which I co-authored, did not pass. In the first reading they supported another edition. Now this question should be addressed to the person who is responsible for it [the main lawyers were the current Minister of Culture and Information Policy Olexandr Tkachenko and Dmytro Huryn, Kyiv majoritarian from the Sluha Narodu. The possibility of nominating Tkachenko for the position of the mayor was seriously discussed then, but it did not happen. – Ed.]. I still insist that in the case of proper mechanics of the process, the issue can be solved quite easily. After all, if the right law on the capital is passed, Klychko will actually become the strongest. They twitch a little when they talk about intervention. It will be the other way around. He will create his own executive committee and become independent. But to get it he needs to work.
Returning to the regions, a number of district councils are now considering the fact of dissolving themselves within five years due to lack of authority. Is this a real possibility?
- The district council can dissolve itself by the corresponding decision. If they start making such decisions, after they transfer the property to the communities, I don’t think anyone will resist. This is the decision of the people who were elected there.
And what will they do now?
-Transfer of property. This is a difficult process. Decisions need to be made to transfer a specific facility directly to communities in the location. Then, obviously, there will be a difficult discussion with the community council itself. I hope without court appeals. If they want, they can develop their own utilities to live on their income. It is also their right under the Budget Code. In general, we assume that their main function is transit.
Is it real to establish a dialogue between these two entities: the community council and the district council?
-The question is quite simple for the district council. They may not want to give away property, but they do not have the money to maintain, for example, a school. Even the remnants of the education subvention will be transferred to communities from January 1, 2021. Accordingly, they should be interested in giving away. Of course, I think that some may try to implement another model: to demand transfers from communities to maintain the school. However, the question is, why do communities need it for? They can raise the funds among themselves in the community where the facility is located – and there is no need in any manager upstairs. This is illogical. Will there be any problem cases? Of course, there will be some, especially in the communities. There will be some very smart heads, who will take the money but not the property. They don’t want the responsibility. There is hope that our regulation, the judiciary, and the administration will work.
Vitaly Bezghin was born in 1990 in Evpatoria. He graduated from the Faculty of International Economics and Management of the Vadym Hetman Kyiv National Economic University. He began his career in advertising, design and communications.
Since 2016 he has been working as an expert of the BRDO Office for Effective Regulation. From 2019 – deputy of the Sluha Narodu.