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Democratising Ukraine by Promoting Decentralisation? A Study of Swiss-Ukraine Cooperation

Oksana Myshlovska


This working paper focuses on cooperation between Switzerland and Ukraine to support decentralisation, local government reforms, and a decentralised provision of services at the local level. Decentralisation has become a central priority for the Ukrainian government, which came to power after the fall of the Yanukovych regime in 2014, and is seen as a way not only of democratising the country but most importantly as a way of dealing with the conflict that started in eastern Ukraine the same year. The paper studies the political factors that have blocked the process of reform with a particular focus on the role of the two most eastern oblasts, the centre of the conflict, and the implementation of a decentralised service delivery model by Switzerland in several pilot communities in Ukraine. The paper suggests that Switzerland could pay more attention to the political factors that have obstructed decentralisation and local government reform, leverage better ‘the drivers of change’, and better address regional factors in order to more effectively promote the reform process at the national level.  

The paper finds that the model of a decentralised service delivery developed and implemented by Switzerland, involving greater civic participation from local communities and the improvement in the capacities of local governments, has been successful, and has a wider democratisation potential. The model’s impact, however, has been limited as it was implemented only in several pilot communities, and Switzerland has not yet developed an approach to successfully scale up the model across the country and apply it to solving a wider number of social, political and economic issues.

The findings of the paper are especially pertinent in view of the recent Swiss commitment to becoming more ‘political’ in development cooperation and to focusing more on the political side of democracy promotion.

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1. Introduction

1Democratisation has returned to the centre of development cooperation debate following the colour revolutions in certain countries of the former Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, and—mostly recently—the so called Euromaidan events in Ukraine. While starting to recognise the complexities and the non-linear nature of the democratisation processes, after some setbacks following the recent wave of popular protests against oppressive regimes around the world, donors have shown their commitment to remaining engaged in helping countries build institutions that are more accountable, inclusive, and responsive to citizens as the research of the last decade has underlined the centrality of such institutions to achieving equitable and sustainable development (Subramanian et al., 2002; Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012).

2The last few years has seen an important change in donors’ thinking about how external assistance for democratisation can be more effective. It is the recognition of past mistakes such as taking an overly technocratic approach, which sees democratisation as a linear, externally-driven process of standard steps and a set of formal institutions and which ignores the informal centres of power; adopting a short-term focus on the achievement of immediate results while democratisation is a long-term process that requires long-the term commitment of donors; and possessing an insufficient understanding of the local context. The new approach encourages donors to take more risks and engage in the political side of democratisation processes to identify and leverage better the potential drivers of democratic change and go beyond cooperation with formal institutions and formal democratic processes, such as elections, to promote democratisation (Carothers and de Gramont, 2013).

3Decentralisation has long been advanced by international organisations and donors as a means to, and an ultimate goal of, democratisation. Elected local governments with enhanced resources and decision-making powers are believed to be more responsive to local needs, better at delivering services at the local level, more accountable to the electorate, and more effective in creating growth opportunities and empowering marginalised groups than their central counterparts. The participation of the population and effective mechanisms for ensuring the accountability of local authorities to citizens have been seen as essential conditions for making decentralisation work.

4Decentralisation and local government reform have been on the agenda in Ukraine since independence in 1991. The administrative-territorial organisation and the distribution of responsibilities between different levels of government in Ukraine still bear many legacies of the Soviet past (Swianiewicz, 2006; Tkachuk, 2012). The system involves four levels (central, oblast, raion, and village) without clear delineation of responsibilities and competencies between them. It is characterised by a centralised model of state administration with the existence of local executive bodies (local state administrations) of elected local councils appointed and essentially controlled by the president, and a large fragmentation at the lowest level with more than 11,000 village councils without sufficient resources to deliver services and implement projects. Furthermore, there is an inefficient centralised system of tax collection, redistribution of resources, and decision-making in which local authorities have to approve decisions pertaining to the local level in cooperation with the central authorities, which has created rent-seeking, clientelism, and corruption.

5The commitment of the new government, which came to power after the fall of the Yanukovych regime, to carry out decentralisation and local government reforms has been regarded as the most credible in the post-Soviet period (USAID, 2014). Decentralisation has been seen not only as a means of democratisation, of delivering better services, and of ensuring economic growth and poverty alleviation, but most importantly as a way of dealing with the regional disparities and contention that have stymied the country since independence. Many have considered the crisis that started in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to be the outcome of the failure to implement decentralisation and local government reforms over the last two decades. Andrii Sadovyi, who has been the mayor of Lviv (the most important city in western Ukraine) since 2005 and is the leader of the Samopomich party, which entered the parliament of Ukraine in the October 2014 elections with one of its top priorities being to implement decentralisation at the national level, considered that the conflict  could have been prevented if the reforms to local government had been implemented back in 2005 (Koshkina and Bazar, 2014).

6This paper focuses on the role of Switzerland in assisting the process of decentralisation and local government reform in Ukraine since the launch of the project for ‘Decentralisation Support in Ukraine’ (DESPRO) at the request of President Yuschenko in 2007. Switzerland has defined decentralisation as the core focus of its development cooperation with Ukraine. The overall objective of DESPRO has been to strengthen good governance and effective local development in Ukraine by ensuring that decentralised structures are capable of providing effective, efficient, and affordable public services such as water supply (DESPRO, 2010, 9). The paper positions the Swiss cooperation with Ukraine on decentralisation and local government reform within a broader discussion of the ways donors can become more effective in the promotion of democratisation. In this regard, the paper focuses on two broad issue areas that could receive more donor attention: the obstacles to promoting decentralisation reforms at the national level due to the competing interests of powerful political and economic elites and the wider democratisation effects of decentralised service delivery in terms of accountability, economic opportunities, and social mobilisation, which are necessary preconditions to making decentralisation work at the local level.

7First, the paper studies in detail the politics surrounding the agenda of decentralisation and local government reform. It shows that the local elites in Donetska and Luhanska oblasts, economically the most important regions of Ukraine and the centre of the conflict that started in 2014, have used the threat of federalisation and the centralised system to manage the distribution of national resources in their favour. The two periods during which the elites of eastern Ukraine were not in charge of the local distribution of national resources, those of the Yushchenko presidency and the post-Euromaidan government, were accompanied by a steep rise in demands for federalisation and regional autonomy emanating from the two eastern oblasts. The paper aims to explore how a donor like Switzerland could become more effective in the promotion of the reform process at the national level in view of the politicisation of the decentralisation agenda. Second, the paper examines a successful model of decentralised service delivery developed and implemented by DESPRO. The model involves co-funding, co-management, and co-monitoring of projects by the local community, local authorities, and DESPRO. This paper aims to study whether the model has potential to produce an even larger impact by being applied to a wider array of political, social, and economic issues at the local level and being spread throughout other regions of Ukraine.

8In addition to scholarly research on decentralisation and democratisation, this paper analyses the annual reports of DESPRO, the project’s strategic documents and core publications, and external assessments of the project. It also relies on several interviews conducted with Swiss officials involved in cooperation with Ukraine.

2. Swiss Cooperation with Ukraine: An Overview

9The relationship between Switzerland and Ukraine has been guided by a number of strategy documents defining the core priority areas of cooperation. Switzerland adopted three four-year strategies on cooperation with Ukraine in 2003, 2007, and 2011, respectively. A strategy for the period 20152018 is currently being drafted. The Swiss Coordination Office in Ukraine, a joint office run by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) was opened in 1999, three years after the launch of the first cooperation projects. Political and economic interventions by SDC and SECO were separate until 2010. SECO programmes included assistance to private sector development, anti-corruption measures, investment facilitation, and import promotion. SECO projects became part of the main strategy as of the 2011-2014 programme (Interview with Keller, 2014), which illustrated an intention to enhance coordination between different programmes. At the same time, cultural projects and scientific cooperation with Ukraine via the SCOPES programme have not been included as part of a Swiss common strategy on Ukraine (Interview with Glättli, 2014).

10The Swiss approach to decentralisation in Ukraine has been guided by the general goal of supporting transition to democratic and market-based systems in the CIS countries, outlined in the Swiss Federal Council’s international cooperation strategy for 20132016: the core guiding document for Swiss development cooperation (Message, 2012). The strategy defines some general principles for the process of decentralisation, stating that successful decentralisation requires tasks, responsibilities, and financial resources to be clearly defined at different levels, and that budgetary autonomy is needed at the local level to deliver the required services and promote the general well-being of the population. External aid achieves greater impact if local institutions bear their measure of responsibility (Message, 2012, 37-38). Furthermore, ‘support must include all government levels’ and ‘decentralisation programmes need to be based on sound political economy analyses that map out both influential actors that may drive the process forward and potential winners and losers of such processes, in order to avoid efforts by the latter to thwart progress’ (Dahinden, 2013).

11The priorities set in consecutive strategies for Swiss cooperation with Ukraine reflect the evolution in conceptual thinking about the most effective interventions for supporting transition and growing frustration with the lack of progress with reforms and democratisation at the national level. Initial projects supported by Switzerland, before the adoption of the first country programme in 2003, included disparate efforts on maternal health, nuclear safety, the environment, the justice system, and social aid (email correspondence with Dali-Bernasconi, 2014). The first country programme for Ukraine included decentralisation and better capacity in local governance as priorities (SDC and SECO, 2003, 12). The second strategy focused on ‘affordable and efficient basic social services throughout the country’ and prioritised decentralisation and devolution of powers from the national to local levels (SDC, 2007, 4). The third strategy acknowledged that ‘a political reform agenda is key for durable systemic change’ (SDC and SECO, 2011, 1). Governance became the core transversal theme: ‘fostering relations between civil society and local governments’ and providing ‘support for sound public financial management at national and local levels, efficient regulation of the business framework, and good corporate governance’ (SDC and SECO, 2011, 18).

12In general, Switzerland has been a relatively small donor in Ukraine. The EU has been the largest development assistance contributor to the country. Between 1991 and 2006, the European Community contributed EUR 2.4 billion through the Ukraine Action Programmes and other projects (European Union, 2007, 9), and almost EUR 1 billion was contributed between 2007 and 2013. Since 1996, the combined spending by SDC and SECO on cooperation with Ukraine has been about CHF 200 million (or about EUR 160 million). The overall budget of the DESPRO project between 2007 and 2013 was CHF 16.5 million (see Table 1, below). For comparison, in November 2014 the EU committed EUR 55 million for decentralisation and reform of regional policies for the period between 2015 and 2018, to support the implementation of the State Regional Strategy until 2020 (European Commission, 2014). Due to its comparatively limited resources, Switzerland has had to be selective in its decisions regarding which projects to support.

13The DESPRO project includes three phases: from December 2006 to January 2010, from February 2010 to January 2013, and from February 2013 to January 2017. Switzerland has been consistent in its support for the project of decentralisation since it was launched, gradually increasing the amount of resources dedicated to it (see Table 1, below) while other donors wound down their projects on decentralisation in the first half of the 2010s (Sury and Krylova, 2012, 3, 25). The focus of DESPRO has mostly been on two areas: support for decentralisation at the national level and pilot projects in several oblasts to improve the delivery of local services. In addition, the project worked on building a database of best practices, the training of different stakeholders, and the dissemination of these best practices. The Swiss approach has been based on the assumptions that successful implementation of pilot projects at the local level would generate best practices feeding into the national process of reform and the facilitation of dialogue among core stakeholders, and that broad awareness raising and training of state and local government officials would help in the adoption and implementation of decentralisation and local government reforms at the national level. The 2012 external review of the Swiss programme recognised that the pilot projects had been overwhelmingly successful and had led to the development of the ‘DESPRO model’, which could be replicated in other regions of Ukraine. At the national level, DESPRO helped the government to develop a number of draft laws on decentralisation, laws which—however—have not been adopted and implemented (Sury and Krylova, 2012).

Table 1. The main focus areas of the DESPRO project

Goals of the phase

Regional focus of pilot projects

Impact of pilot projects

Budget (CHF)

Phase I (2006 2010)

‘set up models for decentralised public services at rayon, municipality and village levels that could be adopted and approved at the oblast and national levels’.

(a) promote local communities’ ability to identify, plan, implement, and manage services; (b) support governments’ capabilities to improve their planning, financing, implementation, and coordination of affordable services in a participatory and innovative manner; (c) assist the Government of Ukraine in its efforts to form a ‘National Agenda’ on decentralisation and to coordinate and harmonise local policy initiatives.

42 projects implemented in 6 raions in Vinnytska oblast and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

14,936 rural inhabitants residing in 5,386 households.


Phase II (2010 2012)

 ‘to develop feasible mechanisms of decentralised, quality public service delivery that are documented and taken up in the national decentralisation reform process’.

(a) the quality of, and access to, services in target areas are to be improved based on the principles of participatory planning and decision-making; (b) effective knowledge management processes developed and integrated into the local governance system in order to increase the capacity of local public servants to plan and implement projects aimed at establishing decentralised services, and to run such services at a high level of quality; (c) the national reform process towards decentralisation and local self-governance is to be strengthened through the provision of advisory support to key national institutions, based on experiences in the partner regions in the areas of local service provision, cross-level cooperation, and community participation.

78 projects in Vinnytska oblast, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sumy oblast (Phases I and II combined).

40,000 rural inhabitants residing in 16,000 households (Phases I and II combined).


Phase III (2013 2017)

‘develop sustainable models of decentralised service delivery (in the fields of water supply, sanitation and solid-waste management), which are based on social mobilisation and involvement of local authorities. These models are disseminated, scaled up and anchored into the state system with the support of local governance associations and key governmental bodies, which are institutionally strengthened and actively participate in the decentralisation and local governance reform process’.

Vinnytska, Dnipropetrovska, Ivano-Frankivska, Poltava, and Sumy oblasts.


Source: Compiled from DESPRO 2010, DESPRO 2010a, DESPRO 2012, and the DESPRO website.

3. Becoming More ‘Political’ to Support Democratisation

14Switzerland has engaged in a select number of issues in the broader agenda of democratisation with decentralisation and citizen participation being its central elements (Message 2012, 200). It has responded to the new thinking about democratisation by committing itself to an approach that is more political than the predominantly technocratic one pursued until recent times (Dahinden, 2013; Live Policy, 2014). As stated by the SDC head, MartinDahinden: ‘democratisation is a process that by definition changes the power dynamics within a society, and democracy assistance, in supporting this process, is thus inherently political’ (Dahinden, 2013). In accordance with this new strategy, Switzerland aims to move out of its comfort zone and to expand its traditional focus on decentralisation, local governance, and support for civil society as the main means of democracy promotion by starting to work with a wider array of formal and informal political actors such as parliaments, political parties, electoral commissions, and anti-corruption bodies, including political economy analysis that integrates the study of the ‘hidden’ aspects of power into its programming, empowering ‘drivers of democracy’ such as organised or individual democratic opposition forces and defenders of human rights, and promoting a bigger role for disempowered groups such as women, youth, and minorities. It has also committed itself to engage in ‘difficult partnerships’ without waiting until a certain level of ‘democracy’ or accountability is in place and to the consistent promotion of local and domestic ownership of democratisation processes (Dahinden, 2013). Furthermore, for successful democratisation, political democratisation has to be accompanied by wealth and job creation and a reduction in inequality, democracy promotion has to be sensitive to the local context, and long-term commitment from donors is required (Dahinden, 2013).

15The focus on the local level has also been underlined in this recent strategic rethinking of the Swiss approach to democratisation: ‘The SDC can bring in [sic] its knowledge of local level dynamics to bear on processes of state building, leveraging its vast experience in mobilizing the democratisation potential of local governments’ (Dahinden, 2013). More broadly, the Swiss approach to democracy promotion encompasses ‘decentralisation, domestic accountability, democratic ownership, transparency and citizens’ participation. The local level is considered the basis for democracy, where the establishment of legitimate, effective and accountable governments is key’ (Dahinden, 2013). This paper aims to study the application of this new strategic approach in the context of Swiss cooperation with Ukraine to promote decentralisation and local government reform, and how Switzerland could become more effective in the promotion of democratisation in the country. The next sections provide an overview of the local context in which DESPRO projects have been implemented.

4. Roadblocks in the Implementation of Decentralisation and Local Government Reform at the National Level

16On one side, Ukraine shares a border with a successful example of decentralisation, Poland, in which decentralisation has been seen as part of the process of de-Sovietisation and Europeanisation, and the necessary reforms were rapidly carried out in the early 1990s by a small circle of experts (Regulski, 2014). On its other side, a less successful effort to implement decentralisation reforms in the Russian Federation during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of sub-national authoritarianism with rent-seeking elites moving to a sub-state level without democratisation and subsequent re-centralization (Gel’man, 2012).

17In Ukraine, since independence, there has not been a similar consensus to that present in Poland regarding decentralisation reforms. Every government since the emergence of an independent Ukraine has taken some formal steps to keep the decentralisation reform agenda alive, but there has not been political leadership at the national level and sufficient pressure from the local level and civil society to adopt reform. With the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the beginning of conflict in eastern Ukraine, decentralisation and constitutional reform have become top priorities for the new Ukrainian government and parliament.

18In Poland, which is seen as a role model for Ukraine, decentralisation reforms had been carried out before the emergence of new, powerful political-economic elites after the fall of communism, elites which could have blocked the process of reform. In Ukraine, reform touches the power bases of the new political-economic elites. The political nature of decentralisation was acknowledged in the recent Swiss strategy on democratisation discussed above, which posits that democratisation and decentralisation change power dynamics in society and thus are inherently political. In a statement on the day of constitution on 28 June 2014, President Poroshenko also recognised that decentralisation reforms would mean a fundamental reshaping of power relations and a decrease in the powers of central authorities: ‘thanks to the changes to the constitution, for the first time the people and the organs of local self-government, village, city, raion and oblast councils, will receive more rights than the president or the parliament’ (Zvernennia, 2014). In this statement, he also outlined the priority goals of decentralisation reform: the state administrations will be liquidated and their competencies and functions will be transferred to the executive committees of the raion and oblast councils, and budget decentralisation will allow a considerable proportion of taxes collected to be kept at the local level (Zvernennia, 2014).

19A centralised power structure dominated by the president showed its excesses under the presidency of Yanukovych. The top-down control of the state had allowed the Donetsk clans to embezzle, according to some estimates, between USD 8 and 10 billion a year (Aslund, 2013). Yanukovych’s presidency also showed that civil society has had limited opportunities to hold the central authorities accountable. An extraordinary event, in the form of the Euromaidan protests of 20132014, was necessary to make the voice of the people heard by the central authorities. The assumption is that decentralisation would decrease opportunities for high-level embezzlement by leaving more resources at the local level (USAID, 2014, 10).

20As mentioned in the new Swiss strategy on democratisation, the political nature of decentralisation reform requires a good understanding of the local context by donors, if they are to be able to leverage the potential ‘drivers of change’. The next section expands on the internal factors impeding the process of reform and then discusses how Switzerland has approached the political side of the decentralisation process in its programming.

5. The Regional Politics of Decentralisation and Federalisation

21This section discusses the role of the most economically important region, Donbas (Luhanska and Donetska oblasts), in defining the dynamics of centre-periphery relations and the pace of reforms at the national level. The region has long held the card of ‘an alternative project of decentralisation’ or federalisation managed by the local elites that have held hostage the national process of decentralisation. The structure of regional industry characterised by large industrial (energy, metallurgy, and heavy industry) enterprises has produced powerful clans that have established control over local government, the media, and civil society at the regional level (Adamovych, 2006; Swain, 2007). The influence of Donbas on the centre was to be seen in the number and total sise of subsidies received by the region’s mining industry, and in the granting of the status of a special economic zone with a favourable tax regime (Swain, 2007). While the share of Donetska oblast in the GDP of Ukraine was 12 per cent in 2010, the region received bigger subsidies and other financial transfers than all other oblasts: 21 per cent of all financial transfers in 2010 increasing to 27 per cent in 2011. The situation was similar in Luhanska oblast, the economy of which constituted 4 per cent of national GDP in 2010. It received 8 per cent of transfers in 2010 and 11 per cent in 2011 (Laboratoriia, 2012). This information about financial transfers to regions was not public at the time, and was only released by the state treasury at the request of a think tank, the Laboratory of Legislative Initiatives, in 2012.

22Furthermore, the region has clearly stood out from the rest of Ukraine in the way it has viewed federalisation and decentralisation. The sociological surveys carried out over the last two decades show that there has been consistent support for the idea of ‘federalisation’ in eastern Ukraine, above all in Luhanska and Donetska oblasts. In 1991, 67 per cent of the population in these two oblasts were for a unitary centralised state with all power based in the centre and 29 per cent for a federal Ukraine with autonomous regions (Adamovych, 2006, 39). According to a sociological survey carried out by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in eight oblasts of south-eastern Ukraine between 10 and 15 April 2014, 24.8 per cent of the population supported a federal state system and 45.2 per cent a unitary decentralised state. The highest support for federalisation among the 8 oblasts surveyed was in Luhanska oblast (41.9 per cent) and in Donestska oblast (38.4 per cent). Support for a unitary decentralised state was measured at 34.2 per cent in Luhanska oblast and at 41.1 per cent in Donetska oblast, while regarding support for a state with its current rights intact the figures were 12.4 per cent for Luhanska oblast and 10.6 per cent for Donetska oblast (Kyivskyi, 2014).

23A nationwide survey carried out by the Razumkov Center in June 2014 showed that 78.9 per cent of respondents would vote for a unitary state with decentralisation and for a considerable expansion of the responsibilities of local authorities in economic, social, and cultural spheres if a referendum on the territorial-political system of Ukraine took place, while only 12.3 per cent would vote for a federal state. This proportion of those who supported the idea of a unitary state had increased from the 69.3 per cent measured in a survey carried out in March/early April of the same year. The highest support for a federal system was the 26.7 per cent registered in eastern Ukraine (63.1 per cent for a unitary state in the same region) while in western Ukraine support for a federal system was, in June 2014, measured at only 1.7 per cent (Tsentr, 2014). The results of surveys taken with an interval of 23 years demonstrate that while the idea of decentralisation made inroads into the two most eastern oblasts of Ukraine, the region has remained the most deeply divided on federalisation and decentralisation. Also the idea of federalisation had more supporters in Luhanska and Donestka oblasts in 2014 than in 1991. This means that in the entire post-Soviet period, Kyiv has failed to deal with the demands and expectations of the region and to tame the politicisation of the issue by the local elites.

24The idea of the federalisation of Ukraine, understood as ‘greater self-governance of regions’, was first promoted by Viacheslav Chornovil, the leader of Rukh—the dominant opposition movement in Ukraine—in the late 1980s (Androshchuk, 2010). After becoming a presidential candidate, Chornovil evolved his views on federalisation by interpreting it as decentralisation. Some experts have interpreted Chornovil’s position on federalisation as an attempt to pressure the parliament of Soviet Ukraine, still with a dominant pro-Communist majority after the first democratic elections in 1990, to secure a separate development path for western Ukraine (Androshchuk, 2010).

25A similar tactic was adopted by the local authorities in eastern Ukraine to challenge the centre using the threat of federalisation (and a possible unification with the Russian Federation) in order to secure state support and subsidies, above all for the mining sector and heavy industry, as discussed above. In the early 1990s, some local movements and the local governments in the eastern oblasts of Ukraine, most importantly Donetska and Luhanska oblasts, requested greater autonomy, proposed the creation of an autonomous republic—‘Malorosiia’, and promoted the idea of the federalisation of Ukraine with the right to local law-making, policing, budgeting, economic activity, and cultural autonomy (Adamovych, 2006, 3538). Demands for autonomy and federalisation were much weaker in regions neighbouring Luhanska and Donestka oblasts, which could be explained by their more diversified economies and greater competition among political and economic elites (Adamovych, 2006, 58).

26For eastern Ukraine, the idea of federalisation and decentralisation has been closely connected with national-cultural autonomy, namely the formal recognition of the official status of Russian and the right to a local history memory. In 1994, Donestka oblast held a local referendum (not recognised by Kyiv) in which 80 per cent of the population voted for official state status for Russian and the federalisation of the country (Adamovych, 2006, 47). In 1996, the city council of Kharkiv decided to officially use Russian in addition to Ukrainian in administrative matters, in violation of national legislation, and declined to comply with the 2001 Supreme Court of Ukraine’s judgment abrogating the council’s decision (Adamovych, 2006, 59). Similar decisions on granting Russian the status of a regional language were taken by the Donetsk, Luhansk, and some other local authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine during Yushchenko’s presidency.

27The scenario of the crisis in eastern Ukraine that started in 2014 was already tested a decade earlier. Following the second round of presidential elections on 21 November 2004, which was falsified in favour of Viktor Yanukovych, the Luhanska Oblast Council decided on the creation of an Autonomous South-Eastern Ukrainian Republic consisting of nine oblasts of eastern and southern Ukraine and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC)—the republic’s capital was to be Kharkiv—and sent a request to the Russian Federation to officially recognise this new state. Referring to the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the laws of Ukraine on self-government, the Council claimed executive powers on the territory of the oblast and declared its intention to create autonomous fiscal, payment, banking, and financial systems for the south-eastern territories (Luganskii, 2004).

28Calls for separation from Ukraine were central at the rallies organised by the local authorities in eastern Ukraine in support of Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 (Adamovych, 2006, 93). After the parliament of Ukraine annulled the results of the second round of presidential elections, an ‘All-Ukrainian Assembly of Members of Parliament and Deputes of Local Councils’ took place on 28 November 2004 in Severodonetsk (in Luhanska oblast), recognizing the legitimacy of the election of Viktor Yanukovych as president and announcing the creation of an inter-regional union of local self-government bodies that claimed to represent members of parliament, 15 local councils, Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, and 35 million citizens of Ukraine and claiming the right to organise a referendum on the status of territories in response to ‘a drastic deterioration in the social-political situation in Ukraine caused by the attempts of Yushchenko, who lost the elections, and his associates to seise power over the state in an unconstitutional manner’ (Obrashcheniie, 2004). The coordinating role in the organisation of the assembly was played by the representatives of local authorities: the governor of Kharkiv oblast, Yevhen Kushnariov, the governor of Luhansk oblast, Oleksandr Yefremov, and the head of Donetsk Oblast Council, Borys Kolesnikov, who were later prosecuted for ‘separatism’.

29The Russian Federation remained cautious during the 2004 events. While it officially endorsed Yanukovych as presidential candidate and sent a representative to the Severedonetsk assembly, it refrained from openly supporting separatist movements in eastern and southern Ukraine. The Russian factor, however, has been an important aspect in considering ‘the dangers’ of decentralisation as the decentralised eastern and southern regions were deemed to fall in the direct sphere of Russian influence.

30Decentralisation became a priority for the Yushchenko government (20052010) following the Orange Revolution. A position of Vice-Prime Minister responsible for administrative reform was created. The Concept of the National Regional Policy was adopted in July 2008. Other draft legal acts that were developed in consultation with DESPRO, other donors, and experts included the Concept of Administrative and Territorial Reform and the Concept of Local Self-Government Reform. They, however, were not adopted due to constant battles between different centres of political power. The general legacy of Yushchenko’s presidency was an increasing regional polarisation of Ukrainian society with official recognition given to controversial nationalist leaders of the past and the revision of the Second World War and other Soviet narratives, ill received in eastern and southern Ukraine (Hrytsak, 2013). Another change that took place under Yushchenko’s presidency was the Europeanisation of the decentralisation agenda. Under Yushchenko, the cause of decentralisation became increasingly connected to Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU.

31Yevhen Kushnariov, one of main people behind the 2004 separatism scenario, became a proponent of administrative-territorial reform and federalisation in Ukraine following the election of Yushchenko as president in December 2004. In an interview given in 2006, Kushnariov openly acknowledged that he promoted the idea of federalisation to achieve some progress on the agenda of decentralisation at the national level (Yevhen, 2006). However, the Donetsk and Luhansk power elites were not truly interested in decentralisation, as seen in the lack of political will to implement decentralisation reform during Yanukovych’s presidency (20102014) when the president’s Party of Regions controlled parliament.

32The demands for federalisation subsided when the Donbas political and business elites gained more power in the central state institutions with Viktor Yanukovych becoming Prime Minister and later President of Ukraine. The Party of Regions had abandoned the cause of federalisation before the 2010 presidential elections. Some proponents of federalisation accused the party and Yanukovych of betrayal (Lozunko, 2009). In the 2010 election programme, Yanukovych supported the decentralisation of power and the reform of budgetary relations in favour of local self-government (Peredvyborna, 2010a). Yanukovych’s main contender in the 2010 presidential elections, Yulia Tymoshenko, did not mention the term decentralisation, but promised to make national and local referenda a functional mechanism and give local self-government bodies the right to create their own executive organs (Peredvyborna, 2010). Thus, by the second decade of the 21st century, decentralisation had become a widely accepted ‘politically correct’ goal reflected in political programmes. Most recently, decentralisation became the core element in the election programme of the presidential candidate from the Party of Regions for the 2014 presidential election—Mikhail Dobkin, formerly governor of Kharkiv oblast.

33The above analysis shows that the idea of decentralisation has remained associated with the process of separatism (or federalisation) and illustrates the dangers of the federalised regions becoming part of the sphere of influence of Moscow. Federalisation and constitutional reform have been the core demands advanced by Russia on behalf of the self-declared  Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics . Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, stated at the end of March 2014—after the annexation of Crimea and before the referendum on independence in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions—that Russia insisted on the federalisation of Ukraine and on the status of Russian as the second state language, which are also the demands of southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. Lavrov also talked about the election of executive bodies at the local level rather than their nomination from the centre (RIA, 2014). Similarly, a former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, who made his first public statement after a year of silence in February 2015, announced that federalisation would be the way out of the crisis (UNIAN, 2015).

34Many expert meetings and academic conferences have been organised to delineate the difference between federalisation and decentralisation. In official circles, federalisation has been widely dismissed as a non-viable and politicised option for Ukraine. Some politicians and state officials drew a clear line between decentralisation, which is about the empowerment of people at the local level, and federalisation, which is presented as an intension to create 'small, weak units of a federation, which would only aggravate the Kremlin-cabinet-invented contradictions and, in the end, carelessly destroy the great, united [soborna] state that is Ukraine’(Interviu, 2014). A participant at one of the many conferences on the threats of federalisation, which took place in December 2014, observed, ‘the question of the federalisation of Ukraine is an artificial one; it does not have any legal grounds and is not well taken by the Ukrainian society’ (Mizhrehionalna, 2014). An expert from the Razumkov Center, the Ukrainian think tank, stated that ‘federalisation could lead to Ukraine losing its own statehood and becoming part of another state (or states)’ (Ukraini, 2014). Former President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma, who has been among the core peace facilitators in the current crisis in Ukraine, also noted that federalisation is ‘an effort by Russia to break up Ukraine’ (Kostiuk, 2014). Finally, the Ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine, Christian Shoenenberger, also noted that Ukraine needs decentralisation that would make it possible to ‘ensure the growth of all parts of Ukraine and to define the real needs of every region’, not the change of the state system through federalisation (Ukraini ne potribna, 2014).

35These political statements and expert opinions however have not been effective in changing the position of Russia and the attitudes to federalisation in Donbas as reflected in the sociological surveys mentioned above. The discourse of federalisation and decentralisation has been politicised and used by local, national, and foreign politicians to pressure for greater recognition at the national level or protest against national policies or those of other regions. Local governments and administrations in different regions of Ukraine have exceeded the authority granted them by law. Legislation regarding the official status of Russian and local autonomy was adopted in eastern Ukraine while local governments of western regions adopted acts which endorsed President Yushchenko after the falsification of election results during the second round of the 2004 elections or recognised Stepan Bandera—a controversial nationalist leader of the inter-war and wartime period, despised in the east,—asa hero of Ukraine after a Donetsk court stripped him of the title in 2010. Local authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine played a central role in mobilizing local resources to support various politicised causes including the formation of an autonomous republic lending the visibility offered by legitimacy and claiming to have the support of the local population.

36This discussion illustrates the complexity of implementing the agenda of decentralisation, which has been inherently linked to demands for national-cultural rights, and of separating the selfish interests of local elites from the actual needs of the local population in eastern Ukraine. This context analysis also allows us to better understand why the reform failed to be adopted at the national level over the last two decades notwithstanding formal support from the central authorities.

37The October 2014 parliamentary elections have led to the weakest representation of eastern Ukraine, in particular Donbas, at the national level since independence because only part of the region could participate in the elections and due to the limited time the Opposition Bloc claiming to represent the interests of eastern Ukraine after the downfall of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions had to prepare for the elections. This might present a historic opportunity to pass the decentralisation reforms. Switzerland stated that its ‘activity during the previous years was dedicated to preparation of reforms, but the real opportunity for their implementation appeared only in 2014, as a result of the Revolution of Dignity’ (Forum, 2014). Donors could, however, pay more attention to how the structural factors that have impeded the reforms discussed above are addressed in the reform process. This could mean the creation of a more inclusive consultation process, which would provide a voice to all regions of Ukraine.

6. Assessment of Swiss Support for Decentralisation and Local Government Reforms at the National Level

38The analysis of the factors impeding the implementation of decentralisation and local government reforms at the national level present in DESPRO strategic documents and reports has been quite vague. After Phase I of the implementation of the DESPRO project, Switzerland considered that ‘the key constraint for implementation of decentralisation reforms is the lack of common understanding of what decentralisation in the Ukrainian context is. […] in the current political situation there is lack [sic] of political will for financial reform. The existing model of financial resources distribution is used by national authorities to put political pressure on regions’ (DESPRO, 2010, 13). The second annual report of DESPRO showed even bigger frustration with the pace of reforms at the national level due to the ‘lack of information on the substance and consequences of reforms, and therefore a lack of societal consensus on reform’ (DESPRO, 2010a, 6). At the same time, Switzerland recognised that the main obstacle to the implementation of reforms was the lack of incentives for the parliament, president, and government to implement the decentralisation reform as ‘it would decrease their power at the regional level’ (DESPRO, 2010, 14).

39The Polish experience demonstrated that the important factors in the implementation of decentralisation reforms are a general national consensus about the need to decentralise the state and a functional parliament that adopts the legislation that supports the reforms. For example, in Poland about 90 legislative acts were adopted during the first stage of decentralisation in the early 1990s and 149 acts during the second stage in 1999 (Regulski, 2014). Switzerland has recognised the centrality of decision-making at the national level to passing the necessary reforms on decentralisation and has defined it as one of the two core strategic goals of its cooperation with Ukraine on decentralisation: ‘Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (the Parliament) remains the most important actor in the process of reform as there is a need for a number of legal acts and for changes in the Constitution that cannot be ensured by any other institution’ (DESPRO, 2010, 14). The Ukrainian parliament, however, has been dysfunctional—a reflection of wider competing political interests discussed above. Decisions passed in parliament have often been made in a non-transparent way without proper consultation with the opposition, experts, and the public at large. A functional, flexible, and consensual mechanism of decision-making at the national level to properly prepare and pass the necessary reforms and, if necessary, amend or abrogate the legislation remains a long-term goal.

40Switzerland has adopted a consultative approach to reform facilitating multi-level and cross-institutional interaction between central and local authorities, think tanks, experts, donors, and the media while acknowledging that the parliament is the main actor for the adoption of the reform. Information exchange, discussions, and consultations at the local level were considered to be key to gaining the necessary public support for the reform (DESPRO, 2010, 13). At the same time, the priority focus has been cooperation with formal institutions: ‘The national reform process towards decentralisation and local self-government is to be strengthened through the provision of advisory support to key national institutions’ (DESPRO, 2012, 8). Switzerland has also focused on building cooperative relationships with the Ministry of Regional Development, Construction and Municipal Economy, which it considered to be the key driver of the decentralisation process (DESPRO, 2010, 14). It has, however, been difficult for donors to develop long-term cooperative relationships with the civil servants in Ukraine who are important for a sustainable and continuous implementation of development projects. In Ukraine, a change of government would usually involve the replacement of state officials at all levels (Interview with Keller, 2014). The 2011 annual report of DESPRO also acknowledged considerable delays in project implementation due to the change of government in 2010 (DESPRO, 2012).

41While the concrete outputs of service delivery projects are easily quantifiable in terms of the number of people and households getting access to water and sanitation, and the introduction of solid-waste management processes (see Table 1, above), the measurement of multi-level and cross-institutional interaction and knowledge management efforts has been more complicated. Examples of outcomesmentioned in the annual reports of DESPRO—in relation to the latter forms of project have included: the number of policy meetings, round tables, workshops, and seminars at the national level; the number of civil servants, municipal workers, NGO leaders and activists, CBOs (community based organisations), accountants and technicians, and media representatives from central and local media who received training on decentralisation and local governance; the creation of a supportive consultative environment; the number of analytical studies, manuals, brochures, guides, and digital tools published; advisory, analytical, and financial support in designing and promoting concept papers and legal acts that frame the National Decentralisation Strategy (DESPRO, 2010, 2010a, 2012). As can be seen from this list, what are described as ‘outcomes’ are rather descriptions of DESPRO activities without a comprehensive evaluation of their impact. The external evaluation in 2012 found that ‘since most of the DESPRO inputs were in the form of general support to the reform debate, which could also have come from other quarters, it is not possible to assess its [the project’s] impact on national policies and the law-making process in general’ (Sury and Krylova, 2012). In conclusion, DESPRO could develop approaches to better evaluate the impact of its projects; measuring, for example, improvements in the communities whose representatives participated in training courses or foreign visit programmes and the change in public opinion reflecting an improvement in the understanding of the benefits of decentralisation and of the roles and responsibilities of local actors.

42The understanding that national political actors lack incentives to carry out the reforms poses major challenges to donors’ democracy promotion strategies. The predominant focus on cooperation with formal institutions and facilitation of multi-level and cross-institutional interaction had not yielded tangible progress in reform at the national level during Phases I and II of the project. The 2012 external evaluation stated that ‘… by taking on the role of a neutral facilitator and taking a reactive rather than proactive stand, DESPRO abstained from serving as an advocate of LSGs [local self-governments] vis-à-vis the upper level authorities. The Associations of local government bodies would be the most legitimate for advocacy work but they have a weak capacity to undertake it’ (Sury and Krylova, 2012). This underlines the importance of a ‘political’ approach to democratic change, which seeks to empower the actors who have the potential to challenge the system. While Switzerland has established cooperation with Ukrainian associations representing local self-government, it could take a more differentiated approach that recognises more explicitly the winners and losers of decentralisation reform in order to leverage and better support the winners, the territorial communities, and self-governing bodies, all of which have had the least resources and representation at the national level.

43This paper has discussed why the struggle to implement decentralisation has been due to the difficulty of separating the agenda of decentralisation from political and politicised demands. The agenda has been compounded with demands for the recognition of Russian and the right to a local historical memory in eastern Ukraine and with the threat of losing the decentralised (or federalised) regions to the sphere of Russian influence. Switzerland has generally avoided the questions of the official status of Russian, the right of regions to local history narratives, and other political demands from regions. However, in such a highly politicised atmosphere, the involvement of a neutral external party such as Switzerland in the facilitation of the process of confidence building between regions could be most appropriate. While Switzerland has followed an inclusive policy in terms of the representation of all major stakeholders in the dialogues on decentralisation and local government reform it has facilitated, this paper finds that it has not developed a specific policy for ensuring regional representation, above all of eastern regions, in the consultation process.

7. Decentralisation and Democratisation: Assessing the Broader Impact of Pilot Projects on Decentralised Service Delivery

44The empirical evidence regarding the promise of decentralisation in developing countries and countries in transition has been mixed. Studies have shown that local governments are not necessarily more effective and responsive to the needs of the local population than national governments, and local elites can be as corrupt and self-serving as their national counterparts (Blair,1998; Manor,1999; Blair, 2000; Mansuri and Rao, 2013). Harry Blair’s research (2000) into democratic local governance in six countries, including Ukraine, in the late 1990s finds that while decentralisation has encouraged participation and increased representation, it has provided little in terms of empowerment, equitable distribution of benefits, and poverty alleviation, and a wide range of accountability mechanisms such as bureaucratic accountability to elected officials, elections, opposition political parties, civil society, social capital, the media, public meetings (for example, public budget hearings), formal grievance procedures, and opinion surveys are necessary to make decentralisation work. Blair’s study (2000) found out that Ukraine was thin in viable accountability mechanisms excluding  bureaucrats’ accountability to elected officials, elections and the media seen as potential sources of such accountability.

45While other donors such as the US (USAID) and UNDP have been particularly focused on participation increasing the input of citizens into local government decisions, with more people participating in politics leading to the expansion of representation and accountability (Blair, 2000), the Swiss approach has been narrower. While claiming a general commitment to democratisation: ‘Decentralisation and public participation are fundamental components of democratic governance’ (DESPRO, 2010, 6), Switzerland has primarily focused on service delivery paying less attention to the political dimensions of the issues, such as elections, political parties, and society’s participation in political processes.  At the same time, Switzerland claimed that  participation in DESPRO projects enhances social mobilisation of citizens, prepares them for participation in decision-making processes and helps them to form an active civil position (Forum, 2014).

46A local governance and decentralisation assessment carried out by USAID in 2014 showed that if reform is passed at the national level, the capacity gaps and needs in terms of the training of local officials will be enormous. The assessment also established that, until now, donors have implemented sporadic and scattered projects at the local level (USAID, 2014). Switzerland made a similar assessment in 2010: ‘Even if reform is implemented, local authorities are lacking expertise on management of public services’ (DESPRO, 2010, 13). Switzerland has identified a large training and skills development gap for public servants both in state and self-government bodies. DESPRO contributed to the process of closing this gap by elaborating a number of training courses for civil servants in collaboration with Ukraine’s National Academy of Public Administration and other training institutions. The 2014 paragraph assessment however demonstrated that the effect of training projects had not trickled down to the local level. This raises the question of whether Ukraine is actually ready for decentralisation. Are the accountability mechanisms and capacities already in place sufficient to make decentralisation work at the local level?

47This section of the paper examines several fundamental questions in relation to the pilot projects on decentralised service delivery implemented by DESPRO. First, it discusses the broader political, social, and economic impact of the piloted decentralised delivery of services projects and evaluates the possibility of applying the DESPRO model to a wider number of social issues at the local level. Then it addresses the issue of the scalability of the pilot projects and the sustainability of the DESPRO model without the project’s financial, technical, and monitoring support. Finally, it discusses the regional focus of DESPRO projects. The paper holds that this assessment is necessarily in order to define whether the localised pilot projects have the potential to deliver on the broader promise of democratisation associated with decentralisation.

7.1. Broader impact of pilot projects on decentralised service delivery

48Participatory models of governance have been a major theme in Swiss cooperation with Ukraine. Switzerland noted that one of the main Soviet legacies has been ‘a lack of involvement of the local population in the various processes and in decision-making’ (SDC and SECO, 2003, 17). For Switzerland, the implementation of decentralisation and local government reforms requires not only the will of the political elites, but also participation of the wider public and the international community (DESPRO, 2010, 6). The DESPRO model introduced to manage a decentralised delivery of services is based on the concept of ‘social mobilisation’, which aims to ‘harness the potential of the people to help themselves’ (DESPRO, 2010, 4). The concept of social mobilisation has been proven to work in Ukraine in relation to a decentralised delivery of services as communities have been able to organise themselves into groups and to plan and implement improvements to communal services (DESPRO, 2010, 21).

49During Phase II, Switzerland acknowledged the need to expand the technical focus of its projects, because ‘sectoral support is insufficient if it focuses only on infrastructural and technical aspects’, and the need to integrate the principles of accountability, transparency, participation, non-discrimination, and efficiency into DESPRO activities (DESPRO, 2010a, 35). However, the manner in which the application of these principles was discussed in the document cited indicates that they pertain, narrowly, only to good governance in water supply and solid-waste management (DESPRO, 2010a, 3536). DESPRO claimed that the implementation of water supply and solid-waste management projects has made it possible to build ‘the capacities of community activists and leaders in articulating community needs and priorities to administrative bodies at all levels’ (DESPRO, 2010a, 36). The principle of good governance was also central in the third (and, at the time of writing, the most recently produced) annual report on DESPRO activities (DESPRO, 2012, 7).

50A review, carried out by the author of the present paper, of best practices formulated as a result of Phase I of the project (DESPRO, 2010b) does not indicate any examples of a wider impact of improved service delivery. Neither could the author find evidence that the improvement in service delivery has translated into wider improvements in other accountability mechanisms as no research that would allow measuring the wider impact of the projects focused on service delivery has been conducted. The open questions are: has access to water led to the opening of other business opportunities and an increase in the level of employment and economic growth in the pilot communities? Has social mobilisation around new models of service delivery led to broader social mobilisation as a mechanism of local accountability? Have local authorities managing water supply systems started other projects to improve service delivery?

51An external evaluation carried out in 2009 based on a review of documents and focus groups and interviews in the pilot communities in Vinnytska oblast and the ARC found that, while decentralised service provision in the water supply sector has become a success, there are many other unaddressed needs in relation to the provision of social services at the local level. The evaluation also found that the proportion of the population prepared to rely on local initiative groups to solve local social issues in the pilot communities was higher than in other regions of Ukraine, which preferred to trust in the local authorities to solve their social issues (DESPRO, 2009, 20). In view of the importance of local accountability mechanisms to the overall success of decentralisation as discussed above, it could be timely to undertake an evaluation of whether the DESPRO model could be used to solve a wider number of social issues, such as education, health care, cultural services, or infrastructure, and generate a larger number of accountability mechanisms at the local level.

7.2. Scaling up the impact of projects

52The scalability of the DESPRO project for decentralised public services from raion, municipality, and village levels to oblast and national levels has been defined as one of the main goals of the DESPRO initiative (see Table 1, above). Switzerland has successfully promoted cooperation between local authorities, local communities, donors, and the private sector on the provision of basic public services at the local level through the mechanisms of co-funding, co-management, and co-monitoring (Interview with Maurer, 2014, Interview with Beltrani, 2014). However, the replication of this approach at higher levels has been problematic (Interview with Maurer, 2014).

53DESPRO participation has been essential to the development of the legal framework related to the creation and functioning of community organisations, to the consultations and training provided to the organisations implementing the projects and different levels of local governance, to the coordination and steering groups organised at different levels, and to the monitoring and evaluation of community projects. In 2009 more than 1,000 consultations of various kinds were provided by the project (DESPRO, 2010, 25). Rigorous reporting of the management and financial aspects of each project was introduced.

54The author of the present paper has found, in DESPRO documents, little analysis of the adoption of the DESPRO model beyond the pilot projects. One example of such an extended adoption of the model involves two communities that were unable to meet all the necessary requirements during Phase II to receive DESPRO co-funding. The DESPRO assessment was that this was due to the fact that there were alternative sources of water available and that the population lacked incentives for it to mobilise for a new system of water supply (DESPRO, 2012, 14). This highlights the centrality of common needs as a precondition for the successful mobilisation of communities. The 2010 report mentioned that slower progress with the implementation of projects in the Sumy region was linked to the fact that it is situated geographically far away from the first two pilot oblasts, which makes the dissemination of best practices difficult (DESPRO 2010a, 42).

55In the DESPRO reports analysed, there are only a few concrete examples of the adoption of the DESPRO model in other regions. The 2011 annual report noted that seven communities had launched projects aimed at the development of decentralised water supply systems on their own without DESPRO support (DESPRO, 2012, 16). However, the report provides no assessment of the success of these efforts. Another such example of model adoption is found in the fact that several community projects have been designed based on examples seen during the ‘exposure visit’ [to Switzerland] (e.g. in the village of Sevastyanovka in the ARC) (DESPRO, 2010, 43). Again, the report does not discuss these projects in detail. DESPRO has also claimed that it has ‘actively started to scale up the project accomplishments’. Yet the main examples of success mentioned in this context were the presentations regarding the DESPRO model made in Luhansk, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts (DESPRO, 2012, 31).

56Scaling up and the integration of DESPRO models at all levels have been defined as priorities of Swiss programming. Yet no systematic efforts have been made to evaluate how many communities have implemented the DESPRO model without direct DESPRO support, or the success of these efforts. In view of the possibility of applying the DESPRO model to solve a number of social issues at the local level, as discussed above, the question of the scalability of the model is of utmost importance. The questions that need to be clarified include: How many communities have adopted the DESPRO model without the project’s direct involvement? What have been the best practices and failures? Given that the focus of the Swiss projects has been at the lowest level, what has been achieved at the raion and oblast levels? How can best practices be adapted to the specificities of each region?

7.3. The regional approach

57Decentralisation will be managed more effectively by those territorial communities that have already developed the skills necessary to manage local projects and have experience in delivering services at the local level. Notwithstanding the reform blockage at the national level, local authorities in Ukraine have diverged in the ways in which they have been able to leverage the limited resources they have been able retain or receive from the centre and other resources including donors, in order to create a local investment climate, and ensure the quality of services and infrastructure. These diverging patterns of regional development have been reflected in the Ukraine regional competitiveness reports, which measure competitiveness at the oblast level (Foundation 2012; Foundation, 2013). While institutions were recognised as the weakest link for the competitiveness of regions in general in the 2012 ranking, three western oblasts led Ukraine in terms of government efficiency: Chernivtsi, Rivne, and Volyn (Foundation, 2012). Obviously the regions that have been able to develop and improve infrastructure and service delivery, even in constrained conditions, will be better prepared for decentralisation.

58The SDC approach to selecting local partners in Ukraine has, according to an SDC official, been to cooperate with those who have some initial capacities, are ready for collaboration, and show initiative and the readiness to take part in projects (Interview with Maurer, 2014; Pislia uspikhu, 2013). This means that the weakest territorial communities with few resources and limited capacities have not received much help from donors. Furthermore, as discussed above, the two eastern oblasts most divided on the issue of decentralisation may have captured the attention of, and been a priority for, the centre and donors.

8. Conclusions

59Switzerland has defined decentralisation as a core focus of its development cooperation with Ukraine. The Decentralisation Support Project (DESPRO) was launched in 2007 to support reforms related to decentralisation and local government at the national level and a decentralised provision of services at the local level. No progress has been made in the adoption of these reforms at the national level over the last two decades. Decentralisation became a central priority for the Ukrainian government that came to power after the fall of the Yanukovych regime in 2014, being seen not only as a way of democratizing the country but, most importantly, of dealing with the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

60This paper has studied in detail ‘the politics of decentralisation’, and factors that have obstructed the adoption of reforms at the national level encompassing informal power relations, the interests of different political and economic actors, centre-periphery relations, and the politicised demands of some regions . The paper shows that donors like Switzerland have underestimated the complexity of the task of promoting the adoption of decentralisation and local government reform at the national level. The paper argues that—in line with its recent commitment to become more ‘political’ in order to promote democratisation—Switzerland could pay more attention to the political factors that have blocked decentralisation and local government reform, leverage better ‘the drivers of change’, and better address regional factors in order to more effectively promote the reform process at the national level. For example, it could make a deliberate effort to ensure that the various regions are better represented in the processes of consultation and policy development for decentralisation and local government reforms.

61Broader participation and accountability mechanisms are necessary at the local level to make decentralisation work. Switzerland has developed and implemented a successful model of decentralised service delivery in several pilot communities in Ukraine that involves co-funding, co-management, and co-monitoring of projects by the local community, local authorities, and DESPRO. The paper found that no comprehensive research has been undertaken to evaluate whether the improvement in service delivery and in the capacities of local governments has translated into the establishment of other accountability mechanisms and greater economic opportunities in the pilot communities. So far the DESPRO initiative has implemented 78 projects affecting 16,000 households (see Table 1, above), which is only a small area when taking the national level into consideration. This paper shows that currently no systematic efforts have been undertaken to evaluate the scalability potential of the DESPRO model, analysis returning little data on the number of communities that have implemented the model without the formal support of the project. The DESPRO experience has also shown that good governance, accountability, and the efficiency of projects is a carefully crafted and monitored process. The main question is whether the DESPRO model would be sustainable without the participation of the project.

62This paper has found that improvements in service delivery, which involve a new level of participation from local communities, and improvements in the capacities of local governments have the potential to lead to broader democratisation, which is the main strategic goal of Swiss cooperation with Ukraine. The assessment of decentralised water supply system projects implemented with the help of DESPRO (2009) has shown that the percentage of the population ready to participate in the management of local social issues was much higher in the pilot communities than in other regions. Switzerland has not yet taken steps to explore the adaptability of the DESPRO model to other social issues at the local level. Finally, the paper discusses the fact that donors prefer to work with those communities that have the initial capacities necessary to engage in projects. This leaves the question of the least prepared communities, above all those in eastern Ukraine—the region that may require special attention from the centre and donors. The participation in the decentralized service delivery projects has involved a major change in civic culture of citizens being transformed from passive recipients of services delivered by local authorities into active participants in the resolution of local social issues. The implemented change has been slow and laborious, and a lot remains to be done to scale up the DESPRO model throughout the country and to apply it to a wider number of social, political and cultural issues. This reinforces the point about the importance of long-term commitment of Switzerland and of other donors in the process of reform.

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Electronic reference

Oksana Myshlovska, “Democratising Ukraine by Promoting Decentralisation? A Study of Swiss-Ukraine Cooperation”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], Policy Briefs | Working Papers, Online since 04 May 2015, connection on 28 September 2021. URL:

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About the author

Oksana Myshlovska

Oksana Myshlovska is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and a Lecturer and Academic Advisor at the School for International Training. She holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. Previously she held a position with the World Economic Forum. Currently she contributes to a FNS-funded interdisciplinary project ‘Nation, Region and Beyond. An Interdisciplinary and Transcultural Reconceptualization of Ukraine.  Her current research interests focus on transcultural and interdisciplinary reconceptualization of the nation and regions as well as the politics of memory and teaching of history in Ukraine.

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