Ukrainian political divisions are resurfacing as the war progresses

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CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — There has been an unofficial agreement among Ukraine’s noisy and highly competitive politicians since Russia invaded: put aside old differences and form a unified front against Moscow.

It has been a remarkable change in a country plagued by political infighting, corruption and Russian influence since it declared independence from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But now, as the war rages on and billions of dollars in international aid pour in, cracks and pre-war tensions are beginning to emerge between the central government and local leaders.

Recent friction between President Volodymyr Zelensky, the wildly popular wartime leader, and Ukrainian mayors trying to defend or rebuild their devastated cities and towns underscore Ukraine’s growing internal challenges as six months of war approaches.

Mayors and analysts told The Washington Post that the Zelensky administration appears to be trying to sideline mayors to maintain control of recovery aid and weaken future political rivals. More broadly, several mayors told The Post that there is growing concern that, in the midst of the war, the Zelensky administration is backtracking on its promises and plans to remove a lingering vestige of the Soviet era by decentralizing the power and give more authority to regional and local governments.

“Autocratic tendencies are starting to develop in Ukraine during the war,” said Borys Filatov, 50, the powerful mayor of Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine, a city that has become a key conduit for arms and aid. to the country’s beleaguered eastern front. “They are trying to dominate the political field… however, we are not opponents.”

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Filatov said mayors have been at the forefront of defending cities and want more control over how their communities are rebuilt.

He criticized the Zelensky government, as have others, with an important caveat: Regardless of internal divisions, he said, the biggest enemy is Russia, and the West must continue to support Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty.

Filatov, who was re-elected in 2020 by a large majority, has clashed with Zelensky in the past. Recently, the Zelensky government allegedly threatened to revoke the Ukrainian citizenship of an oligarch close to Filatov because he has dual nationality, which Ukraine prohibits. Another oligarch and close confidant, also a dual citizen, said he was banned from returning to the country after a trip last month.

“It’s a dangerous slope,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “For Ukraine to win this war, it has to be built on this idea [that] mayors are not a competition but are seen as part of the team…where there is a central command at the time of war, while local governments can tackle problems as they see fit.”

These rifts with local politicians come as Zelensky has made controversial changes within his own cabinet, last month suspending the head of Ukraine’s security services and its prosecutor general, and also announcing a widespread investigation into “treasonous activities and collaboration”.

Ukrainian mayors have traditionally sided with the ruling national party to gain access, Lutsevych said. Many mayors have supported both former President Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally who was ousted in Ukraine’s 2013-14 revolution, and his more reformist successor, Petro Poroshenko. In recent years, some mayors have chosen to create their own political parties and personal alliances.

But while the party in power at the national level has generally dominated at the local level, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party did poorly in the 2020 local elections. Having won the majority of seats in the parliamentary elections of the The previous year, the party failed to win a mayoral seat in any major city: incumbents beat Servant of the People candidates in 10 key mayoral races. In a personal defeat for Zelensky, his party’s candidate for mayor in his hometown of Kryvyi Rih lost in a runoff even after the main opponent withdrew.

The war has boosted Zelensky, who now has broad public support. The president’s late-night speeches from the capital are credited with boosting Ukraine’s morale, despite a war that has destroyed entire cities and towns across the country and cost thousands of lives.

As the world scrambles to help Ukraine, the central government is the main conduit for the tens of billions of dollars in aid that countries and agencies have pledged to rebuild its shattered cities. It has also created regional military administrations whose power often supersedes that of local civilian governments and which are financed directly by Kyiv.

That has fueled frustration among mayors, who argue that regional leaders are better positioned than central government officials to receive and direct funds quickly and to know what their constituents need. Amid the rubble, mayors are trying to forge their own international alliances with countries or cities willing to fund specific reconstruction programs.

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Lutsevych said that wars tend to spawn “new heroes” and, in the case of Ukraine, it is very likely that some of them will become mayors.

Among those most critical of Zelensky has been Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, which borders Belarus and was one of the cities near Kyiv hardest hit by Russian forces.

Atroshenko, 55, spent the first weeks of the war with his constituents under constant bombardment as he rallied global support for Ukraine. But in July he broke with that national unity and directly criticized Zelensky, accusing the president’s “associates” of trying to remove him from power.

“Today, instead of resisting the attacks of the enemy, the city is forced to withstand the attacks of its subordinates,” Atroshenko said in a video posted July 8 on his Facebook page. “Central and local authorities must work together against the enemy, not against each other.”

Six days before Atroshenko posted the video, a Ukrainian border guard prevented him from leaving the country to attend a conference in Switzerland on Ukraine’s recovery. Atroshenko, pacing in an interview with The Post, said it was the second time in recent weeks that central government agents had barred him from traveling to an aid-related event.

Ukraine has barred all men of military age from leaving the country since Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24. Atroshenko said he needed to travel to raise money for Chernihiv, where he said the badly damaged heating system must be repaired before winter.

After the mayor posted a video of the July 2 meeting, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, responded on Telegram: “I remember those who have forgotten that there is a war in Ukraine! This especially applies to border regions and those that were still occupied very recently. The danger has not passed!”

If the “signal is not clear,” Tymoshenko said, he reminded mayors that their communities could get help “without you.”

Tymoshenko declined interview requests.

Rivne Mayor Oleksandr Tretyak, 35, has a very different constituency and concerns than Atroshenko, but he sympathizes with his colleague’s frustration.

Tretyak was elected in 2020, making him one of the youngest mayors in Ukraine and the newest figures in a field occupied by career politicians. He runs the city of Rivne in western Ukraine, which has been spared missile attacks but has absorbed thousands of displaced Ukrainians.

Atroshenko “is trying to do everything possible to attract investors, invite business, invite other countries to help, to solve the problem,” Tretyak said. “That is normal. I am trying to do the same. … I can’t just sit here in my city and wait for my central government to give me help.”

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