A Way Forward for Ukraine

However the current crisis over Crimea finally ends, Ukraine will still be left with a crisis of its own politics — a crisis that Russia seized as a pretext to annex Crimea, and that would invite further intervention in Ukraine unless it is immediately addressed. The origins of the current emergency, in fact, lie in a failure of Ukraine’s political institutions to accomplish two fundamental tasks: produce leaders with a reputation for honesty and competence, and ensure that public policy is responsive to all segments of the public.

The cure would be to decentralize the way power is distributed, so that all Ukrainians can feel better represented in a unified Ukraine free from Russian interference.

The corruption and incompetence of the ousted president, Russia-oriented Viktor F. Yanukovych, was what helped draw thousands of Ukrainians onto Independence Square in Kiev last fall. But with the kleptocratic Mr. Yanukovych now having decamped to Russia, which still maintains he is Ukraine’s legitimate president, there appears to be nobody in the Western-oriented erstwhile opposition with the stature and authority to lead and unify the country. That void increases the risk that elections proposed for later this year will bring to power demagogues or worse.

The failure to guarantee that public policy will reflect the will of the public opened the door to secessionist sentiment; that, in turn, provided Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, with the pretext he needed to use force, crude lies and a parody of an election referendum in order to snatch Crimea from Kiev’s control.

Simply put, no matter how transparent Mr. Putin’s tactics have been, many ethnic Russians living throughout southern and eastern Ukraine — not just in Crimea — do not trust the new government in Kiev to protect their language rights and culture. Many fear they will be treated less favorably than the less industrialized West, where the population is more heavily weighted to ethnic Ukrainians.

What accounts for these failures? Ukraine’s highly centralized constitutional system, which grants the president the right to hire and fire provincial governors at will.

To put this into perspective, imagine if President Obama named Democrats to the governorships of all 50 states after being elected in 2008. Imagine further that Mitt Romney won in 2012 and replaced all 50 of these governors with Republican appointees. That happens every time the presidency changes hands in Ukraine. To be sure, there are popularly elected provincial councils that serve alongside the executive, but the governors have the lion’s share of power.

Because these governors are politically appointed bureaucrats rather than elected politicians, they have little incentive to cultivate reputations for doing what voters want; instead, they do what the president wants. And with that record, if they later run for national office, voters won’t trust them to govern effectively.

Presidential appointment of governors in a diverse country like Ukraine also stokes secessionist pressure. In the current environment, it is quite possible that the next elected president would be from western or central Ukraine, and it is plausible that he or she might espouse nationalist views that would be anathema to many ethnic Russians. And there is the absolute certainty, under the current system, that this president would choose the next governor of every region in eastern Ukraine. In this context, some there might look to Mr. Putin as the safer bet for protection, unless the central government had made a commitment to decentralizing political power.

In fact, officials in Ukraine have begun to consider alternatives to the current constitutional structure that could reflect such a commitment. Advocates of decentralization include Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv in western Ukraine. Ukraine’s Parliament, which would need to approve any constitutional change, has formed a working group on constitutional reform.

On Monday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs picked up on the issue and included political decentralization and the election of governors among proposals it said could form the basis of a crisis-ending agreement between Ukraine and the Kremlin.

But Ukraine doesn’t need Russian approval or a constitutional change to start achieving some of the benefits of political decentralization.

After its presidential elections later this year, there would be nothing to prevent the winner from announcing that he or she would accept the recommendations for governor of Ukraine’s provincial councils. Although it would be preferable to have the local selection of governors guaranteed in the constitution, a quick executive grant of more power to the existing provincial councils could be a vital step toward easing regional tensions and building a stronger democracy in Ukraine. And a constitutional amendment could come later.

The transition to an independent democracy in Ukraine was never going to be easy, but it has been made more difficult by a constitution that enshrines the presidential appointment of governors. Replacing that scheme with local selection would create a pool of national politicians with reputations for governing responsibly. It would also reassure residents of eastern Ukraine that they would not be dominated by the west after future elections — a fear that invites Russia to tear the country apart.

Scott Gehlbach is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Roger Myerson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. Tymofiy Mylovanov is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh.

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