Thus, for example, in Zakarpattya – a region of great value due to its borders with Romania, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – several MPs and a member of one of the Zakarpattya clans reformatted an old party (“Kyiv Community”) into “Ridne Zakarpattya”, or Native Zakarpattya. Vasyl Petyovka, the clan member in question, had previously been a longtime member of the United Center party, run by his cousin Viktor Baloha, founder of the leading Zakarpattya clan .
“These four MPs created a local project to be independent from Kyiv. They did not run for elections, but acted as ‘faces of the brand’,” says Vitaliy Hlahola, a journalist and public activist who is now a deputy of the Uzhhorod city council – he headed the Native Zakarpattya list in the regional capital.
At the local level, the political system is also patrimonial. In turn, Viktor Baloha, who passed on to national level politics, bequeathed the Mukacheve district to his eldest son Andriy Baloha, who rebranded his father’s old party United Center, naming it Andriy Baloha’s Team ahead of the election.
How decentralisation has changed local politics in Ukraine
Despite the importance of these local elections, turnout was very low – 36.88%. The winners, very often by a wide margin, have been old politicians, long-serving town mayors and their political projects – in short, those who ruled Ukraine’s regions for many years.
Thus, Andriy Baloha won in Mukachevo, and Zoltan Babyak, representative of the Hungarian minority, won in Beregovo. Meanwhile, Vasyl Petyovka’s Native Zakarpattya party has done very well all over the region; his son Andriy Petyovka has been elected to Mukachevе сity council from the Native Zakarpattya list. Only Uzhhorod will hold a second round of elections, where incumbent mayor Bohdan Andriyiv will face Viktor Shchadei, a young local politician from the Servant of the People party.
The results for the Servant of the People party in general is about the same as that of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc party in the 2015 local elections, when the latter lost control of the mayors seats in large cities, and failed to take a majority of votes in regional centres or city councils. Power at the local level in Zakarpattya is now completely – and legitimately – concentrated in the hands of political clans which are independent from Kyiv.
“After the local elections of 2020, twenty-five regional political regimes have emerged in Ukraine,” says Oleksandr Fisun, citing the number of administrative regions in the country. “Each one consists of two parts: the city regime, the nature of which depends on the success of the mayor, and the regional council.”
This brings significant changes to the political scene in Ukraine. “Ukraine has developed a two-tier political system. The first level is national, with national political parties, and the second level is local with regional politicians,” Fisun states. “Now we have two levels which do not depend on each other, and this leads to serious changes in the entire political system and the entire political regime. These changes appeared in the 2015 local elections, but were strengthened and, in fact, institutionalised after the decentralisation reform.”
Indeed, these elections and the administrative reform have consolidated the autonomy of local elites from Ukraine’s central government, making local politics independent from national politics. This also means that “small fish” on the local level, like deputies of district councils and rural townships, are no longer tied to Kyiv. If before, the head of an amalgamated territorial community – when one district council is merged with another – was happy and even obliged to join the president’s political party, because it gave them many opportunities, including use of land and state resources, now they no longer have to do so.
How should we explain the brilliant victory of politicians of local regimes and a major loss of the Servants of the People? In addition to the fact that the Servant of the People was unable to acquire the support of prominent people in the regions, it seems supporters of the presidential party simply decided not to go to the polls. Instead, it was people who were interested in ensuring economic stability in their town or region that actively voted. “The agenda of prosperity and economic security is monopolised by local party projects,” notes Fisun.