Ukraine’s political divisions resurface as war continues

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CHERNIVIH, Ukraine — There has been an unofficial agreement between Ukraine’s loud and highly competitive politicians since the Russian invasion: Put aside old differences and form a united front against Moscow.

It was a remarkable change in a country plagued by internal political strife, corruption and Russian influence since declaring independence from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991.

But now, as the war continues and billions of dollars in international aid pour in, pre-war fissures and 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 towns and villages underscores Ukraine’s growing internal challenges as six months approach. of war.

Mayors and analysts have told the Washington Post that Zelensky’s government appears to be trying to sideline mayors to keep control of stimulus aid and weaken any future political rivals. More generally, several mayors told The Post that in the midst of the war, Zelensky’s administration was going back on its promises and considering removing a lingering remnant of the Soviet era by decentralizing power and granting 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 on the front lines defending cities and want more control over how their communities rebuild.

He criticized Zelensky’s government, like others, with one major caveat: regardless of internal divisions, he said, the greatest enemy is Russia, and the West must continue to support defense of Ukrainian sovereignty.

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

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

These disagreements with local politicians come as Zelensky made controversial changes to his own cabinet, last month suspending the head of Ukraine’s security services and his prosecutor general as he also announced a widespread investigation into “the activities of betrayal and collaboration”.

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

But while the nationwide ruling party has generally dominated locally, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party fared poorly in the 2020 local elections. the previous year, the party failed to win a mayoral seat in any major city: incumbents defeated servant-of-the-people candidates in 10 key municipal elections. In a personal defeat for Zelensky, his party’s candidate for mayor of his hometown of Kryvyi Rih lost in a runoff even after the main opponent dropped out.

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

As the world rushes 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 supplants that of civilian local governments and which are funded directly by Kyiv.

This has led to frustration with mayors, who argue that regional leaders are better placed than central government officials to receive and direct funds quickly and know what their constituents need. Amid the wreckage, mayors are trying to establish their own international partnerships with countries or cities willing to fund specific reconstruction programs.

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Lutsevych said wars tend to bring out “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 is Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, which borders Belarus and was one of the towns near Kyiv worst damaged by Russian forces.

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

“Today, instead of resisting attacks from the enemy, the city is forced to suffer attacks from your subordinates,” Atroshenko said in a July 8 video posted 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 Ukrainian recovery. Atroshenko, pacing in an interview with The Post, said it was the second time in recent weeks that central government officials had banned him from traveling for an aid-related event.

Ukraine has banned all men of military age from leaving the country since the large-scale Russian invasion on February 24. Atroshenko said he had to travel to raise funds for Chernihiv, where he said the badly damaged heating system needed to be repaired before winter.

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

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

Tymoshenko declined interview requests.

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

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

Atroshenko “is trying to do his best to attract investors, invite companies, invite other countries to help, to solve the problem,” Tretyak said. “It’s a normal thing. I try to do the same. … I can’t just sit here in my city and wait for my central government to help me.

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