But as the war continues and billions of dollars in international aid pour in, rifts and pre-war tensions are beginning to develop between the central government and local leaders.
Recent frictions between President Volodymyr Zelensky, the highly popular war leader, and Ukrainian mayors trying to defend or rebuild their devastated cities and towns underscore Ukraine’s mounting internal challenges as it approaches nearly six months of war.
Mayors and analysts told The Washington Post that Zelensky’s administration appears to be trying to sideline mayors in order to maintain control of recovery aid and weaken future political rivals. More broadly, several mayors told The Post that there is growing concern that during the war, Zelensky’s government will renege on promises and plans to remove a lingering remnant of the Soviet era by decentralizing power and granting more powers. to regional and local authorities.
“During the war, autocratic tendencies are beginning to develop in Ukraine,” said Borys Filatov, 50, the powerful mayor of Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine, a city that has become a major channel for weapons and aid on the country’s eastern front. “They are trying to dominate the political field… but we are not adversaries.”
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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 important caveat: regardless of internal divisions, he said, Russia is the greater enemy, and the West must continue to support Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty.
Filatov, who was re-elected by a large majority in 2020, has clashed with Zelensky in the past. Recently, Zelensky’s government has allegedly threatened to revoke Ukrainian citizenship of an oligarch close to Filatov because he holds dual citizenship, which Ukraine has banned. Another oligarch and close confidant, also a dual citizen, said he was barred from returning to the country after a trip last month.
“It’s a dangerous slope,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a researcher in the Russia-Eurasia program at London-based think tank Chatham House. “In order for Ukraine to win this war, it must be built on this idea [that] mayors are not competition, but are seen as part of the team… where there is a central command in times of war, while at the same time local governments can tackle the problems as they see fit.”
These rifts with local politicians come as Zelensky made controversial changes within his own cabinet, last month suspending the head of Ukraine’s security services and the attorney general, as he also announced a widespread investigation into “treason and cooperation activities.”
Ukrainian mayors have traditionally joined the ruling National Party to gain entry, Lutsevych said. Many mayors have supported both former President Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally who was ousted in Ukraine during the 2013-14 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 party in power nationally tends to dominate locally, Zelensky’s Servant of the People fared poorly in the 2020 local elections. After taking a majority of seats in the previous year’s parliamentary elections, the party won. no mayor seat in any major city: the incumbents defeated the Servant of the People candidates in 10 key mayoral elections. In a personal defeat to Zelensky, his party’s candidate for mayor in his hometown Kryvyi Rih lost in a runoff election even after the main opponent dropped out.
The war gave Zelensky a boost, who now has broad public support. The president’s nighttime speeches from the capital are credited with boosting Ukraine’s morale, despite a war that has devastated entire cities and towns across the country and cost countless thousands of lives.
As the world rushes to help Ukraine, the central government is the main channel for the tens of billions of dollars in aid that countries and agencies have pledged to rebuild the devastated cities. It has also created regional military administrations whose powers often exceed that of civilian local governments and are financed directly by Kiev.
This has led to frustration among mayors, who argue that regional leaders are better positioned than government officials to receive and forward money quickly and to know what their supporters need. Amid the wreckage, mayors are trying to forge their own international partnerships with countries or cities that want to fund specific reconstruction programs.
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Lutsevych said that wars tend to bring out “new heroes”, and in the case of Ukraine, it is very likely that some of them will become mayors.
One of Zelensky’s most critical was Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, which borders Belarus and was one of the towns near Kiev most damaged by Russian forces.
Atroshenko, 55, spent the early weeks of the war with his constituents under constant bombing as he garnered global support for Ukraine. But in July, he broke with that national unity and directly criticized Zelensky, accusing the president’s “associates” of trying to remove him from power.
“Today, instead of resisting the attacks of the enemy, the city is forced to endure the attacks of your subordinates,” Atroshenko said in a video posted to his Facebook page on July 8. “Central and local authorities should 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 Ukraine’s recovery. Atroshenko, who reciprocated in an interview with The Post, said it was the second time in recent weeks that central government agents had banned him from traveling for an aid-related event.
Ukraine has banned all military-aged men from the country since the massive invasion of Russia on February 24. Atroshenko said he had to travel to raise money for Chernihiv, where he said the badly damaged heating system needs to be repaired before winter.
After the mayor posted a video of the July 2 meeting, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, shot back on Telegram: “I remind those who have forgotten that there is a war going on in Ukraine! This applies in particular to the border regions and the very recently occupied territories. The danger has not passed!”
If the “signal isn’t 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 constituency and concerns other than Atroshenko’s, but he sympathized with his colleague’s frustration.
Tretyak was elected in 2020, making him one of Ukraine’s youngest mayors and the newest figures in a field occupied by career politicians. He heads the western Ukrainian city of Rivne, which has been spared rocket attacks but has taken in thousands of displaced Ukrainians.
Atroshenko “is trying his best to attract investors, invite business, invite other countries to help and solve the problem,” Tretyak said. “That’s a normal thing. I try to do the same. … I can’t just sit here in my city waiting for my central government to give me some help.”