Decentralisation, accountability and inclusiveness are key to Ukraine's
reconstruction, mayors say
Ukraine should take a 'whole-of-society' approach, continue decentralisation, and increase the financial independence of local communities as it seeks to re-build and recover in the face of Russia's ongoing invasion, Ukrainian and EU politicians said at a conference that brought over 100 Ukrainian mayors to Brussels on 9-10 November.
Participants at the ACT NOW Mayors Conference, which started just a day after the European Commission said the EU should start accession talks with Ukraine, also underscored the need for accountability to Ukrainian citizens and accountability from international partners during Ukraine's reconstruction and recovery work, and called for Ukraine to build on its strengths rather than simply to seek to undo the damage wreaked by Russia.
Though they expect Russia to try to destroy core infrastructure during the winter, Ukrainian mayors said they are now able to think beyond emergency needs and to reconstruction and recovery plans. Increasingly, these plans are being coordinated with the central government through a digital governance tool – DREAM, or Digital Restoration Ecosystem for Accountable Management – that the Ukrainian government also hopes will help coordinate and manage the nationwide reconstruction effort.
"We were trying to build an integrated ecosystem to manage the restoration and to make it, first of all, more inclusive, but also that this system allows us on each level of the government to have a picture of the restoration," said Oleksandra Azarkhina, Ukraine's deputy minister for communities, territories and infrastructure development. She also emphasised the need to put sub-national governments on a better and stronger footing, saying: "The financial independence and capabilities of the local authorities need to be our focus both in terms for the restoration and in terms of the European integration."
Deputy Minister Azarkhina added it is "important" for Ukraine to synchronise its work with support offered by the European Union and by the international community.
International support for reconstruction and recovery
The EU is in the process of negotiating a new financial instrument, the Ukraine Facility, to provide predictable and flexible support to Ukraine for 2024-27, including for reconstruction and recovery. Speaking on 9 November, a European Commission representative said that ensuring local and regional involvement in reconstruction and recovery was "very important… and not just involvement in the process, but also to ensure that the support we continue to provide to Ukraine is also supporting reforms and investment in these dimensions. So the decentralisation reforms that you have had is something that we see as incredibly positive."
The international community's support is in part being steered by the annual Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC). The latest URC, held in June 2023 in London, underscored the need to involve civil society and local communities in the reconstruction process, and representatives of the next host of the URC – Germany – told the ACT NOW conference that Germany is encouraging a "whole-of-society approach" to reconstruction, noting that Germany's post-war reconstruction and post-1989 reunification had proved to be "tasks for generations".
The ACT NOW Mayors Conference – entitled "Spirit Unbroken: Empowering Local Democracy for Ukraine's Renewal" – provided a sense of the scale and depth of the challenges faced by Ukraine's regions, with sessions focused on the situation in newly de-occupied territories and in areas still occupied by Russian troops, and with contributions from the leaders of regions, cities and rural communities across the country.
The value of pre-war decentralisation reforms was underscored by, among others, Yulia Posternak, the head of the Kulykivska community in the Chernihiv region. "We were not taught to be elected heads of local administrations country torn by war and with our communities under occupation," she said. "Decentralisation was the best what could have happened to us, to empower us to take responsibility, to lead by examples and to build up our resilience in the face of war."
While their needs vary, Ukrainian mayors said their communities were all affected, with administrations farthest away from the front lines needing support to build up social infrastructure to provide adequate support for children, women, and the elderly displaced by the war and the wounded brought to their hospitals for treatment and rehabilitation.
Ukraine and the European Committee of the Regions
The conference, which was organised by Ukraine's Ministry for Restoration, the Innovation in Politics Institute, the European Capital of Democracy, and U-LEAD with Europe, a partnership of the Ukrainian government and the EU to support multi-level governance in Ukraine, was also designed to encourage partnerships between EU and Ukrainian regions and cities. Several of the organisers are members of the European Alliance of Regions and Cities for the Reconstruction of Ukraine, of which the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) is a founder and serves as the secretariat.
The CoR has a 10-point support package to Ukraine, with some actions focused on reconstruction and peer-to-peer partnerships and others on enabling Ukraine's sub-national governments to participate in the institutional life of the EU prior to accession. The city of Lviv, the region of Dnipropetrovsk, and the Association of Ukrainian Cities now have representative offices in the CoR.
Patrick Molinoz (FR/PES), chair of the CoR's Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs, emphasised the importance of partnerships between regional and city administrations – Mr Molinoz's home region, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté in France, is currently developing a partnership with the central Ukrainian region of Vinnytsia – and also the value for Ukraine's local and regional leaders of engaging now with the EU. "When Ukraine formally joins the EU, you will be sitting here – but this house is already yours. Through the presence of many cities who can use the premises and we give you all the possibility to express what you have to say to the world so that support to Ukraine grow stronger and stronger."
The city of Lviv was the first Ukrainian administration to set up a representation in the CoR and, during a visit in October by the CoR's Working Group on Ukraine, Lviv's Mayor Andriy Sadovyi urged every Ukrainian region and city to find an EU partner.
In a statement welcoming the European Commission's recommendation on 8 November to start membership talks with Ukraine, the president of the European Committee of the Regions, Vasco Alves Cordeiro, underscored the potential contribution of sub-national diplomacy and collaboration, saying: "Europe has a rich tradition of peer-to-peer cooperation between its cities and regions, and the Committee has been building on this tradition for nearly 15 years, providing expert advice to accession candidates' local and regional authorities, helping to build capacity at the local and regional level, and facilitating networking and cooperation between regional and local authorities in the EU and beyond."
The ACT NOW conference is one of a number being organised in November by partners in the European Alliance of Regions and Cities for the Reconstruction of Ukraine: the German-Ukrainian Municipal Partnership Conference in Leipzig (13-15 November), and the Kyiv Investment Forum hosted by the City of Brussels (16 November).