REFORMER REMOVED: Dismissal of Mykolaiv Mayor threatens to derail Ukraine’s decentralization success story

Business Ukraine 

By Michael Druckman 

On 5 October, the Mykolaiv city council conducted a nearly five-hour-long session to allow the city mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, to update the council on his activities and address city business. A proposed vote of no-confidence in the mayor had been put forward previously by a former member of his Samopomych party and at this time was brought forward for a vote.  The Nash Krai faction, which includes the former mayor (who lost in the second round of the 2015 mayoral election to Senkevych), the anti-EU Opposition Bloc, and the ruling Petro Poroshenko party all joined together to remove Senkevych from office in the second year of a five-year term as mayor.  

The move has led to speculation that politicians united by their opposition to Senkevych’s anti-corruption agenda joined forces to oust him. Following the decision, the secretary of the council will now serve as the acting mayor until the Ukrainian parliament sets a date for a new mayoral election. 

Impressive Improvements

Due to this vote, Mykolaiv has lost a young reformist mayor who had been widely recognized by the international community for his efforts to address the challenges his city has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Following his election in October 2015, former IT business owner Senkevych has made considerable progress increasing the transparency of the office of the mayor, as well as the city itself.

According to municipal polling data from the International Republican Institute (IRI) released in April 2017, the percentage of Mykolaiv city residents who believed that corruption was a significant problem in their city decreased by 23 percent in just 12 months under Senkevych’s leadership. Satisfaction with the mayor increased by 22 percent in the same period, while 25 percent said that they found information about their mayor to be more accessible. Such data is a strong testament to Senkevych’s ability to implement piecemeal reforms with an adversarial city council in what many consider a challenging environment due to weak economic activity and entrenched local elites with an interest in maintaining the status quo.

Alarming Signal

There are a number of reasons why the city council’s removal of Senkevych could spell trouble for Mykolaiv. In the short term, international investors who were taking a serious look at investing in Mykolaiv may reconsider that interest in the face of entrenched interests opposed to greater transparency and accountability in the city.

Structures put in place to prevent corruption and improve investment conditions, such as the Mykolaiv Development Agency (made possible with support from the Embassy of Canada) and the new Municipal Department on Combating Corruption face an uncertain future now that their strongest supporter is no longer in office. Additionally, multilateral institutions like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) that have been deeply engaged in Mykolaiv over the past year are likely to respond to the mayor’s removal with concern.

Decentralization and Democracy

As Ukraine heads into the 2019 election cycle and faces increasing uncertainty over the country’s political direction, the removal of Mayor Senkevych could mark the beginning of a trend of independent-minded mayors maneuvered out of office before their terms expire. A similar tactic emerged under former president Viktor Yanukovych prior to the Revolution of Dignity: six Ukrainian oblast centers including Kyiv, Chernivtsi and Cherkasy saw their mayors removed due to similar “no-confidence” measures. Today, Mykolaiv now joins Lutsk as another oblast center currently without a mayor.

Such measures risk undermining the tremendous progress made in just a couple of years. Ukraine’s political and fiscal decentralization has been the most significant governance success story since independence. Trust and confidence in new officials and local governing bodies has increased year-on-year, and citizens increasingly feel that things are moving in the right direction in their city or town.

As Ukraine looks ahead to the 2019 election year, it is crucial that the country continue to embrace a reformist agenda, and eschew the types of tactics most recently seen in Mykolaiv. Let us hope that a new group of candidates motivated by that spirit will have the courage and leadership to put forward their names for Mykolaiv’s next council.

About the author: Michael Druckman is the Resident Program Director for Ukraine at the International Republican Institute

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