Petro Poroshenko: Why Ukraine Needs to Give Power to Its Regions

Petro Poroshenko exclusive for Newsweek
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gestures during a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine, June 5.  Mykhailo Markiv/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters

Ukraine's parliamentary vote on August 31 in favor of the law on amendments to the constitution on decentralization of powers showed the world that our country has many responsible politicians with a strategic and democratic vision.

However, the events outside Parliament that followed the vote were supremely painful: three servicemen fell victims to a failed attempt to destabilize the state. I feel truly disgusted that someone could use the deepest sorrows of my fellow citizens to their political advantage. And I will personally make sure that anyone involved directly in the events near the Ukrainian parliament as well as those who orchestrated their actions will be brought to justice.

For more than twenty years decentralization has been discussed in Ukraine, although no government before dared to take real action on this topic. Decentralization of powers in Ukraine is crucial for building a European state, full stop. I said it in my inauguration speech, I say it now.

The existing model of governance is excessively centralized, and has nothing to do with democracy. It is a Soviet atavism that has largely contributed to endemic corruption and widespread economic and political mismanagement in Ukraine. We are now doing what should have been done a long time ago.

Let me be clear that the reforms to the constitution which we are proposing will allow us to grant more power to all our regions and, therefore, to all law-abiding Ukrainian citizens. Decentralization will strengthen, not weaken Ukraine.

Regardless of the issue's sensitivity in Ukrainian society, I have consciously assumed this responsibility because it is the right thing to do for the prosperity of my country.

The main idea behind the amendments is delegation of some central powers, as well as financial resources, to the level of local government where they can be used with maximum efficiency.

The first part—budget decentralization—was initiated in the beginning of 2015. Thus far it has shown very promising results—the average relative increase of local budgets' revenues amounted to 36.8%. Decentralization of state powers suggests that local communities will be able to decide how to spend the received funds themselves. And, as is also highly important, local government will be accountable not to the center, but directly to their voters.

What is more, the Venice Commission, which provides independent advice for the Council of Europe on all matters of constitutional reform, praised our draft law on amendments to the constitution and stated that it was highly compatible with the European Charter of Local Self-government.

Since many misinterpret the essence of decentralization in Ukraine, let me explain some potentially confusing points.

Firstly, defense, national security, rule of law, and compliance with civil freedoms will remain in the jurisdiction of the central authorities.

Secondly, the current constitution has an article that implies a possibility for special regional status. The draft law I have submitted to Parliament on amendments to the Ukrainian constitution, on the contrary, eliminates this item to prevent the emergence of numerous fiefdoms. Instead, there will be forms of local self-governance in certain districtsin Donetsk and Luhansk regions—only when three conditions are met: Russia has withdrawn its troops and weapons from Ukrainian territory; control over the Ukraine-Russia border is entirely restored; and lastly, elections on those territories are held according to Ukrainian law and standards set by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Thirdly, decentralization initially was in my peace plan because I believed that was the right path for my country and my people. The item was included in February's Minsk ceasefire agreements, despite all of President Putin's attempts to substitute it with "federalization" or "autonomy". What is more, constitutional reform on decentralization demonstrates that the responsibilities Ukraine commits to are upheld, and we keep our promises even when the road gets rocky. We demand the same in return.

Few nations can truly relate to what Ukrainians are going through right now. Eastern Ukraine right now is our open wound, and anything associated with it is a very sensitive topic. Decentralization of powers is indeed a hard choice, but it is the only right choice. Now, despite all the challenges, we are approaching the moment of truth, and we just need to take a couple more courageous and responsible steps.

Petro Poroshenko is the president of Ukraine.