Ukraine’s decentralization and Donbas “special status”: what you need to know

Protesters clash with riot police outside Ukrainian Parliament after decentralization vote. Photo: Vladislav Sodel.

Protesters clash with riot police outside Ukrainian Parliament after decentralization vote. Photo: Vladislav Sodel. 

2015/09/01 • News

On Monday, August 31, clashes erupted at a protest against decentralization law outside Ukraine’s parliament. Key opposition figures and parliamentary coalition parties protested the reform, claiming it would legalize Kremlin’s proxies in Ukraine. Experts admit Poroshenko’s administration failed to convey the true meaning of this reform to the public. This, in turn, lead to politicians capitalizing on the ensuing uncertainty, which culminated with 1 dead and over 100 wounded (mostly policemen due to a grenade attack at the Rada).

We looked through the decentralization laws to find out what they really mean.

Origins

Since independence Ukraine has suffered from the Soviet legacy of an extremely centralized system. The concentration of power and finances in the capital allowed for institutionalized corruption, perhaps best symbolized by Yanukovych’s Mezhihirya residence. Decentralization has been among the demands of Maidan protestors who ultimately toppled Yanukovych’s regime. You can read on the origins of decentralization in more detail here.

Decentralization is included as a requirement from Ukraine set in the Minsk agreement signed by Ukraine, Russia and its proxies in February this year. Under its provisions, Ukraine must adopt constitutional reform taking into account the specifics of Donbas regions.

The reform

On July 16, Ukraine’s parliament put the presidential administration’s decentralization bill on the agenda and sent it to the Constitutional court for approval. On July 31 it was OK’ed by the CC. A month later, it passed the 1st hearing with a majority of 265 (with 300 needed for the bill to pass second hearing).

The reform’s proponents point out it is shifting more power from Kyiv to the local communities. The draft law organizes local governments into three tiers: from the community (“hromada”) to county (“raion”) to region. In lieu of powerful presidential-appointed regional governors, it introduces prefects for regions and counties which are tasked with coordinating local and state authorities and controlling the legality of county and regional councils’ decrees.

The constitutional amendments define local council powers in pretty broad strokes, most prominent being levying local taxes and defining economic and social policies of their constituents. Other important things include local referendums on key issues of the community and a guarantee that any increase in local powers would be followed with an increase of local budget.

Experts believe the law in its current form leaves loopholes for abusing of power by the President and presidential-appointed prefects (such as annulling decrees by local councils or dissolving them altogether upon a court decision). However, the reform’s proponents (including Poroshenko himself) praise the reform as a shift of power to local communities.

The point of contention

According to the draft, the new constitution would explicitly provide for special status of only its capital, Kyiv. However, the most controversial line of the constitutional amendment is article 18 of the “Transitional Provisions”, which says the following:

“The specifics of executing local governance in certain counties of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are defined by a separate law”

Poroshenko insists this is in no way a “special status” provision and part of Ukraine’ obligations under Minsk agreements (which, according to the administration, Ukraine adheres to while Russia and its proxies do not). Critics of the Minsk agreements say that this provision was imposed on Ukraine by outside forces and constitutes capitulation before Russia’s invasion and legitimizing the Donbas “republics.” An appeal by Ukrainian intellectuals to the President stresses that the reform constitures “geopolitical subordination to the dictates of Russia.” Ian Bond, the director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform, claims that Russia’s participation in the negotiation process invalidates the outcome, and that instead of pressuring Ukraine, the West should be helping Ukraine defend itself.

Some ground for those claims may be seen in the “separate law.”

The “Special status law”

The bill “On the special order of local governance in certain counties of Donetsk and Luhansk regions” was passed by the Ukrainian (Yanukovych-era) parliament on September 16, hot on the heels of the first Minsk agreement. It covers the territories currently occupied by Russian hybrid troops.

The law understandably caused trouble with Ukrainian patriotic opposition due to such provisions as a broad amnesty to “participants of the events in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.” It is unclear how far this amnesty would stretch and if “events” include murder and acts of terror committed by the militants.

Other controversial provisions are the extended status of Russian language as well as cross-border cooperation with local authorities of Russian border communities. Another point of content is the provision for “local militia units” created by local councils. On one hand, this sure looks like legitimizing DNR and LNR terrorists. On the other hand, a “militia” member should be a citizen of Ukraine and a resident of the community in question, meaning mercenaries from Russia wouldn’t be able to stay.

In March 2015, after the so-called “Minsk II” which defined a road map towards peace in Ukraine, the “special governance” law was amended to the effect that most of its provisions would come into force only after local elections under Ukrainian law and monitored by international observers would take place. This angered the “rebels” and the Kremlin, ostensibly because it allowed for little to none Moscow control over occupied Donbas. A year after the law (itself limited by three years) was passed, the elections in question (that would have to include Ukrainian nationalist parties) are still to take place. Under Minsk agreement, the constitutional reform also comes after pulling out foreign troops from Donbas and return of border control to Ukraine.

Bottom line

  • The decentralization reform proposed by Poroshenko’s administration has its merits and drawbacks.
  • The main controversy is the special law for Donbas counties’ governance provided for in the Constitution.
  • The law in question has controversial provisions like amnesty and “local militias” but will not come into effect before Ukrainian border control is restored, Russian troops pull out and elections under Ukrainian law take place. It is currently to remain in force for two more years
  • The administration claims the reform is in line with Maidan demands and Minsk agreement
  • The opposition believes the “special status law” amounts to capitulation before the Kremlin under international pressure

Edited by: Alya Shandra

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  • Rascalndear

    Bills go through “readings,” not “hearings.” I believe the bill will need a constitutional majority to be passed into law, not just pass second reading.

  • evanlarkspur

    Ivan, you are a troll. Go away. Everyone is tired of your endless cut and paste comment having nothing to do with the stories to which your “comments” are attached.

  • Palirath

    You really should discuss

    1) the fact that the decentralization plan, the decentralization of the central government, and a negotiated peace were part of Poroshenko’s campaign for the presidency.

    2) that Poroshenko’s 14 point peace plan from 10 July, 2014 is practically identical to the Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 accords (meaning that Poroshenko got almost everything he wanted)

    3) the fact that the constitutional amendments were first submitted to the Venice Commission sometime in September of last year, and they were returned with a mostly favorable report

    4) the fact that the contentious phrase about “The specifics of executing local governance in certain counties of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are defined by a separate law” was added AT THE LAST MINUTE by people who were against the special status being in the constitution at all

    5) as well as a list of politicians who proposed the inclusion of the hated clause,and those who voted FOR the bill before it was sent to the Supreme Court and are now decrying the very same bill

  • laker48

    He should be jailed for an additional year for your spamming.

    • laker48

      He broke the law and suffers the consequences.

      • laker48

        I prefer the BBC, the CBC and Polish Kresy24 website http://kresy24.pl/. Kresy 24 has people on the ground throughout the whole former Soviet Union and reports events the MSM report three or four days later. I’m glad that the Poroshenko government started cracking down on Pravy Sektor and Svoboda. Russia in its current shape should be wiped out of the face of the earth.

        • laker48

          It is Donbabwe. BTW, close to one million Ukrainians already process Polish bread into crap, although, to be fair, most are decent people and those few Banderites who abused the hospitality and tried to flash the red and black flag got kicked out of schools or universities and, eventually, out of the country. Hundreds publicly apologised.

          If you’re Ukrainian, you know it all too well that Donbas, or Donbabwe (I do love it) has always been ruled by the mafia and nothing has changed. The so called “separatists” are mostly local street thugs, gangsters and other louts lured by free money, guns, alcohol and opportunities of looting local businesses and individuals while going unpunished.

          • laker48

            Sorry, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. I will never help someone sporting the image of criminal against humanity Che Guevara. Guevara’s persona is totally repulsive because, as a trained medical doctor, he was killing people by the score instead of saving their lives. Worse than Doctor Mengele. Your buddy needs to seek support elsewhere.

          • laker48

            Not at all, and the ultimatum is on the table about releasing all political prisoners in Cuba in exchange for more normal relationship with the US. There’s more talk than action. The streetcars in Havana are still pulled by horses. I don’t know if you have ever been to Cuba, but it’s still a skansen of the 1950s.

          • laker48

            One swallow doesn’t make a summer.

          • Brent

            Here are some excellent links proving your comment about those ruling in “Donbabwe”. Crimea is no better but little news gets out of there because of their tighter control on the media. Aksyonov is a known career criminal. Mafiaso, just like Putin.

            http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1440447628

            http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1437044730

            http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/09/02/dnr-leaks-how-a-ponzi-scam-turned-into-a-russian-fueled-rebellion/

          • Brent

            I’m still waiting for the “Free Ivan from Kremlin Propaganda” site….

          • Brent

            Wow. You really are Russian!!! You think you need permission for everything you do? Not in the West. We’re allowed to think for ourselves and have freedom of choice here.

            Break from the flock, little sheeple. Go and do something without your master’s permission. You may find it reinvigorating!!!

        • laker48

          It is Donbabwe. BTW, close to one million Ukrainians already process Polish bread into crap, although, to be fair, most are decent people and those few Banderites who abused the hospitality and tried to flash the red and black flag got kicked out of schools or universities and, eventually, out of the country. Hundreds publicly apologised.

          If you’re Ukrainian, you know it all too well that Donbas, or Donbabwe (I do love it) has always been ruled by the mafia and nothing has changed. The so called “separatists” are mostly local street thugs, gangsters and other louts lured by free money, guns, alcohol and opportunities of looting local businesses and individuals while going unpunished.

  • laker48

    The special status of the terrorist-held territories should be limited to the language and cultural rights, as it’s the case with Quebec in the Canadian Confederation. They should also be allowed to maintain its own police force reporting to the police headquarters in Kyiv, while the border with Russia should be guarded by the federal forces. No direct say in the defence and foreign policies of the federal government

  • Vladislav Tcheprasov

    Donbas people massively went to a Referendum of Independence.
    You like it or not – they got some reason – look at Ukraine nowdays.
    Why would Donbas want to be a part of current bacchanalia?
    youtu[dot]be/b4ZanCuToPU

    Check video of their “Donetsk year of independence” – people are happy to be apart from Ukraine. Why bother to force them in?

    • laker48

      If they decide to hold the October 18 “referendum” and vote to join Russia, the Kyiv government should be more than happy, as the terrorist-occupied territories are nicknamed “the rust belt” and will overnight become net drain on Russia’s resources, thus freeing up a significant cash outflow from the Kyiv government coffers.

      If Russia, for whatever reason, refuses to take them under its already clipped wings, they’ll be left out in the cold with no international status, no money and no government, as the current local mafia dons are anything but even the lowest grade politicians.

    • Brent

      Then why do they and Putin keep demanding Ukraine financially support and pay for the damage caused by Russian sponsored terrorists, pensions for those still living there, and for Donbass to remain as part of Ukraine?

      What mindless sheeple like you keep conveniently forgetting is 1.5 million residents of Donbass are currently refugees in ‘free’ Ukraine. They still get a say in what happens in their home oblasts, but just don’t want to live under thug rule. And the majority of residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts protected by Ukraine don’t want to be part of Putin’s fabled “Novorossiya”

      http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/09/02/dnr-leaks-how-a-ponzi-scam-turned-into-a-russian-fueled-rebellion/

      http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1437044730

      http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1440447628