Local elections in Ukraine mark a turning point
USA Today
By Oren Dorell

Whether voters elect a new wave of leaders bent on reform or turn to ultra-nationalist or pro-Russian parties vying to capitalize on Ukrainians’ frustration with a dismal economy, local leaders will soon have more power than ever before in the country.

Sunday’s local elections in Ukraine will likely be a turning point in the nation’s struggle to break free of the corruption that prompted the 2014 ouster of a Russian-backed president and the beginning of an ongoing war fueled by Russian-backed separatists.

Decentralization in the central government is pushing decision-making and budgetary authority down from the capital in Kiev to municipal bodies. Soon, local authorities will have the ability to dismantle the web of regulations that choke off economic growth and promote corruption — or to block anti-corruption efforts and deal with the consequences in future elections.

If voters bring more reformers into office, “I hope that will be a sign the country is moving in the right direction,” said Andriy Kurochka, fundraiser for the Ukrainian Catholic University who discussed the upcoming elections during a visit to Washington with a group of Ukrainian business leaders.

The way Ukrainians rallied around their armed forces during the recent fight with Russian-backed separatists gave Kurochka a good feeling about the future. “Ukraine will continue united, or it will not exist,” he said.

He and others in his group from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv said new blood is needed to bring about the change that the country demanded when it threw out former president Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions.

That so-called Maidan Revolution poised Ukraine to join an association agreement with the European Union, which would require anti-corruption measures to modernize the economy. But it also prompted Russia to seize and annex Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and support a separatist movement that still holds territory in eastern Ukraine.

The resulting conflict killed nearly 8,000 people, according to the United Nations. Russia continues to deny fighting in Ukraine despite evidence to the contrary provided by U.S. and NATO.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has abated since early September, and separatists agreed to cancel elections planned for Oct. 19 that would have conflicted with a cease-fire agreement that requires all elections to be held according to Ukrainian law. Elections in the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are now scheduled to be held in the spring.

Having fought on the streets of their capital and on the eastern battlefields, Ukrainians have also been fighting to keep their elections clean. In the eastern city of Mariupol, activists seized ballots they claimed were extraneous and had been printed to sway the election.

Yet cynicism is also rampant. In the Black Sea city of Odessa, a candidate who legally changed his name to Darth Vader and dresses as the Star Wars character is running for mayor.

Polls show Ukrainians are deeply dissatisfied with their national leaders, but remain deeply engaged politically. More than a third, 38%, have an unfavorable view of the new president, Petro Poroshenko, and 59% disapprove of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, according to a poll conducted in September for the International Republican Institute.

Despite that, three out of four Ukrainians said they are likely to turn out for the upcoming election, according to the poll.

Many Ukrainians are fed up with the slow pace of political and economic reforms, said Taras Kytsmey, founder of the SoftServe IT company based in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, who was in Washington with the university group.

“Many people understand you can’t make many economic changes during war time,” Kytsmey said over a bowl of New England clam chowder at an eatery in Old Town Alexandria, after touring the Mount Vernon home of George Washington. Now that the war in the east has abated, Ukrainians also understand that change requires “a new generation in power,” he said.

Kytsmey is hopeful that voters will choose new leaders who are globally oriented and understand the need to eliminate overlapping regulations that deter foreign investors.

Such leaders would be “the first step in this direction,” he said. “They speak a different language. They understand what it is to be free.

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