The local self-government system that Ukraine has been thoroughly building over the past six years is now undergoing by far the most serious resilience test. It is not even about the condition of local self-governance at the end of war, or several months or years later. The resilience capacity built by the reform is enduring enough to quickly replicate best practices of decentralization and good governance models, even after the disruption of the entire system. Today, the key question is about whether it is possible to preserve the capable and efficient local self-governance in the context of protracted war.

The Parliament’s current strategy on re-formatting local self-governance looks like the efforts of power engineers or emergency rescuers recovering critical infrastructure – you never know where it “hits from” but you keep preparing for whatever. This is how the first critical draft law came (No.7153). It was supposed to address the issue of governing the country under the martial law. The hasty bill submitted to the Parliament on March, 13, was a direct response to the dramatic developments of the first weeks of the war. At that time, rascists started to intentionally terrorize local community heads and councilors in the south of Ukraine, and committed cruel killings in Kyiv region. Kherson was already under occupation of russian invaders, and it all pointed to the same fate for Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv. There was the real threat of paralyzing the operations of representative authorities on different levels (including the Parliament) – MPs will not be able to promptly convene and make decisions. The draft law No.7153 was supposed to save the situation by expanding the Government’s authority in lawmaking when community leaders could also make decisions at their sole discretion. However, at the moment when the draft law was voted and expected the President’s signature, the context changed again. The Parliament set the efficient operations and the Ukrainian Army moved from defense to liberation of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv regions. The President did not sign the bill since the initial idea lost its appeal.

Throughout all of this time, in the power halls they kept searching for a format of territory governance that would meet the two opposite needs. On the one hand, it is supposed to prevent the employment of local self-governments in the territories occupied by the rf to legitimize the russian rule. It is not only about the collaborationism risks but also about a threat of applying repressions against local officials and councilors who refuse to collaborate by choice. On the other hand, the draft law must enable the functioning of local self-governments staying in the relatively safe territories that need to continue their operations and properly fulfil their functions under the martial law. The balance was hard to reach, as illustrated by a long discussion around the bill No.7269 about the functioning of local self-governance under the martial law. The MPs had to choose between the efforts to keep local self-governments against all odds, and the total reconstruction of the system – and they struck in the middle.

The law signed by the President last week is a critical but interim result of a political compromise between parliamentary factions about the future of local self-governance. MPs agreed about an option to keep local self-governments on all levels but with the gradual construction of a single-entity centralized system of decision-making on the basis of local heads and chiefs of military administrations.

Down the road, one must not reject a throwback to a more radical scenario. It implies the de facto termination of local self-governance on the level of Oblasts and districts in the relatively safe territories, when the representative authorities (local councils) retain the decorative powers on the community level. Therefore, all administrative leverage will eventually pass to the vertical of military administrations. Community councils will lose all their powers in part of staffing, budget, composition and control policies in executive bodies, as well as in property management. Officials and public servants from local self-governments who are loyal to the state will be able to continue fulfilling their functions only under the military administrations. The scenario implies that local self-governance is liquidated in the temporarily occupied territories until better days.

Today, we can only understand one thing for certain – the longer the martial law lasts, the shorter the leash that the central government uses to keep local self-government under control.

What do we have as of now? Since the start of war in Ukraine, the local self-government system has been out-shadowed by military administrations. It is true of absolutely all regions, rather than only of territories with active hostilities or those under the temporary occupation. It is certain that some local heads have never stopped being the headliners of everyday developments while organically combining the roles of military reporters, social psychologists, and crisis managers. However, we grew unaccustomed to see city mayors in their common roles of change drivers and MCs of political processes locally. Local councilors are in an even harder position – their role in the suggested governance system has become more of an embellishment. We need to face it that local councils are transforming into showcases resembling of the old good times when public policy and inter-party discussions were possible and instrumental.

Military administrations function in all regions without exceptions, on the basis of Oblast and district state administrations, and also in Kyiv city administration. Civil Military Administrations (CMAs) in Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been replaced by military administrations. All heads of state administrations (and of CMAs) have automatically become chiefs of the appropriate military administrations. In security issues, all military administrations are subordinate to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In other areas, they are coordinated by the Government. In formal terms, regional and district councils continue to function but only in localities where Oblast centers have not been occupied, and until the Verkhovna Rada passes a decision to terminate their powers.

The establishment of military administrations in certain settlements (hromadas) relied on another approach, different from the levels of Oblasts or districts. First of all, the administrations are created selectively, rather than everywhere. Moreover, they are established only in cases when local authorities and self-government officials cannot exercise the assigned powers, or in cases when the facts show that village, township, or city heads breached the Constitution, or the laws of Ukraine. For example, the President issued Decrees to establish military administrations in Hostomel (Kyiv region), Kostiantynivka (Donetsk region), Korosten (Zhytomyr region), Tokmak (Zaporizhzhia region) and other communities. Secondly, heads of local self-government will not necessarily be appointed as chiefs of military administrations. In other words, the community may have both a MA chief and the community head at the same time. When a community has a MA established, the chief will be accountable to the chief of a district military administration. Third, among other things, creating an MA in local community may lead to the termination of powers of local self-government (the council, executive committee, and the head) in favour of a MA chief. It will require the Verkhovna Rada, upon submission from the President, to pass a separate decision stating that the community MA chief, in addition to their own powers, is exercising the powers of a local council, local head, and executive committee, and that all the administrative office of the local self-government body shall be accountable to him. In the near future, we will be able to see many such decisions.

Therefore, on a basic level, local self-government is still available in most hromadas (where military administrations of settlements have not been established). At the same time, the role of local councils is in any case limited, and the role of community head in sole-discretion decision-making is increasing. It applies to the approval of a temporary structure of executive bodies, appointment of directors in municipal companies and organizations without a competitive basis, liquidation of illegally located temporary structures, and to allocating budget funds for the Army needs.

When the martial law is lifted, the Verkhovna Rada may pass a decision to resume the work of local self-governments, where threats for security and order are eliminated on the Oblast’s territory. Otherwise, chiefs of military administrations will continue exercising the powers until the new members are elected to councils or until they are replaced by civil military administrations.

In a situation when the temporary martial law may last ‘forever and a day’, a chance must be given to local self-governments to continue functioning, primarily in the relatively peaceful regions. It will be much easier to resume the previous balance of powers between the community head and the council, even in the context of minimal security risks, rather than to rebuild local self-governance through elections. It is clear that local self-governments will not manage the recovery of territories without an active intervention of the central government. However, when they exclude local self-governments from the governance during the martial law it means cutting off the key channel for feedback between the community and the government. As to the temporarily occupied territories and the lands most vulnerable for rf attacks, here, the introduction of military administrations is by far the only way to protect local self-government from delegitimizing or discrediting.

Read more about the “parliamentary games” with local self-government in an online discussion on “Local Self-Governance During the War: Key Transformations of Powers and Practices”