By Oksana Bedratenko and Katie LaRoque
A new poll shows that Ukrainians are hungry for change and finally seeing it at the local level.
On April 10, the International Republican Institute (IRI) released its annual municipal survey, tracking the views of more than 19,000 Ukrainians in twenty-four cities. Three years since IRI’s first survey, residents in fifteen of the twenty-four cities surveyed have expressed more optimism in the overall direction of their cities’ development and several have seen improvements in the quality of public services and governance. Although pessimism at the national level remains strong, significant improvements have been made at the local level.
More than a year after the October 2015 local elections, these results provide up-to-date feedback on municipal authorities’ performance.
To give readers a sense of how cities across Ukraine are performing, we took a closer look at attitudes in three cities: Mariupol, Khmelnytskyy, and Lviv.
Mariupol is a large industrial center in Ukraine, responsible for about seven percent of the country’s industrial production. The city is home to more than fifty large industrial plants, including two giant steel mills, which belong to Metinvest Group and employ approximately 45,000 people. Since Russian-backed forces invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, Mariupol has found itself in close proximity to the frontline, and has withstood several attacks and attempts to destabilize the city.
Despite this threat, Mariupol continues to provide residents with jobs, healthcare, and education, and has rebuilt infrastructure. The city also embraced many post-revolution reforms. IRI has noted an increase in requests for assistance from Mariupol authorities and an eagerness to engage with IRI’s programs.
Following the passage of a 2015 law that allowed apartment owners in multi-unit buildings to manage their own communal spaces, IRI set up dozens of meetings across the country on housing association reform. The most successful were in Mariupol and Slovyansk—two cities with historically low levels of civic participation. Since IRI began working on this issue in Mariupol in January 2016, the number of registered housing associations (known in Ukrainian as OSBB) has increased from seventy-three to more than three hundred.
Mariupol’s success in continuing to provide services to citizens in the face of existential threats is a significant achievement, and is reflected in the poll. While Mariupol residents are skeptical of the authorities in Kyiv, support for local leaders has grown with each year. A majority of those polled support Mariupol’s mayor (63 percent) and city council (50 percent), and Opposition Bloc (25 percent), of which the owner of Metinvest Group is a member, has strong support among the public and has representatives in most municipal positions.
But there’s a troubling lack of pluralism in the city. Forty percent of respondents ranked the ability to freely express thoughts and beliefs as “bad” or “terrible,” and only 28 percent believe their authorities have consulted with citizens in making decisions. Mariupol residents also want more political choice, evidenced by the rapid increase in support for the new populist party Za Zhyttia (For Life), which enjoys 16 percent support after being formed in July 2016.
Lviv, a cultural and business hub in western Ukraine, boasts one of the best investment climates in the country and a highly-developed IT sector. The 2017 Global Outsourcing Ratings, a list of the world’s top one hundred outsourcing service providers, featured seven of Lviv’s IT companies. Lviv residents are proud of their city, value freedom of speech, and support European integration.
A sharp decline in support for local authorities in Lviv was one of the most striking findings in the poll. Over the last year, Lviv saw a rapid decline in the level of trust in its mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, who also leads Samopomich (Self Reliance), from 65 to 46 percent. Sadovyi’s reputation suffered from a May 2016 incident in which a fire at the city dump covered Lviv in ash and resulted in the deaths of four. The subsequent scandal and the city’s ongoing waste management issues have put authorities’ approval ratings at a three-year low, and the percentage of people who think that things in Lviv are going in the right direction has dropped 15 percent over the last three years.The scandal trained a spotlight on systemic corruption and influence-wielding. The share of respondents who do not believe that local authorities are fighting corruption increased from 44 percent to 60 percent over the last year, and the share who believe that municipal authorities are fighting corruption declined from 23 percent to just 10 percent. This data is troubling—particularly coming from such a reform-minded city—and underscores the importance of listening to ones constituents.
Khmelnytskyy, a typical working-class town in western Ukraine, relies heavily on small and medium companies. Khmelnytskyy outranked the other cities surveyed for respondents who reported paying a bribe to an official to receive an administrative service. At the same time, a plurality of respondents expressed the belief that their mayor was making an effort to end local-level corruption.
The political landscape of Khmelnytskyy lacks a dominating political force: during the October 2015 elections, none of the political parties were able to secure a majority in the local council. However, the mayor, who represents the Svoboda party, has built a coalition and succeeded in improving the overall quality of public goods and services in the city, from sidewalks to public transportation. Seventy-four percent of respondents said that local authorities have improved the image of their city, a ten-point increase from last year. Khmelnytskyy now leads Ukraine with the largest number of kindergartens, of which there are massive shortages, and citizens in Khmelnytskyy feel the safest walking home alone at night.
In conclusion, reforms take time, but there are encouraging signs across Ukraine. Moreover, the improvements in public opinion—or growing disapproval, as the case of Lviv illustrates—underscore the fact that Ukrainians are eager to see progress at the local level, and recognize improvement when they see it. The challenge will be realizing such reforms in Kyiv.
Katie LaRoque is the International Republican Institute’s Program Officer for Ukraine based in Washington, DC. She tweets @katielaroque. Oksana Bedratenko is an independent analyst based in Washington, DC; she formerly served as the Senior Local Economist at the US Embassy in Kyiv. She tweets @Bedratenko.