Maidan Square where the 2014 riots launched Ukraine's quiet revolution. The silence refers to the engine of democracy that decentralization has been in Ukraine. Photo: Juan Antonio Segal. Source: Wikimedia commons.


Russia's invasion puts pressure on Sweden's defense of democracy in Ukraine

The decentralization reform which has ongoing in Ukraine since 2014 has been described as one of the main reasons for the country's valiant resistance in the war against Russia - which was not included on the spreadsheets of analysts around the world. Sweden has a decisive importance for the continued survival of the reform.

There are not many countries whose societal institutions had withstood the enormous pressure of an invasion from a foreign power. The military asymmetry between Ukraine and Russia led many of the world's analysts in the early stages of the war to conclude that Kyiv would fall - if not within days, then within weeks. The reason for the unexpected resistance, however, has gone somewhat unnoticed, points out Erik Faxgård, project manager at Sweden's Municipalities and Regions (SKR) International, during the opening minutes of a seminar during the Almedal Week, which highlighted Sweden's important role for Ukraine's democratization.

The reason for Ukraine's resilience goes by the name of the "quiet revolution" that took place after the Maidan revolution in 2014. The silence of the revolution refers to the engine of democracy that the decentralization reform in Ukraine represents. By breaking free from the ineffective old Soviet central government, Ukraine's local democracy has been strengthened.

- Without exaggerating, I can say that the local self-governments today constitute both an army and a weapon. They are the country's reliable home front and a strong support to Ukraine's armed forces, says Ukrainian Deputy Regional Minister Vyacheslav Nehoda during his acceptance speech at the reception of a Polish decentralization award on May 27 this year.

Sweden's role in Ukraine

The understanding of Sweden's role in the reconstruction, and in particular of SKR International, is very serious for Ukrainians.

- "SKR must return to Ukraine after the victory, without SKR we will not be able to rebuild Ukraine." This person was not the only one who came up to me and talked about SKR. Ministers, front-line soldiers and ordinary civilians wanted to talk to me about SKR. I have never experienced that in Sweden, says Member of Parliament Anders Österberg (S) about his visit to various municipalities in the Kiev region, during a seminar arranged by SKR.

What is meant is precisely the capacity building that Sweden, with the world's oldest history of local self-government, can contribute with.

- Swedish municipalities need to involve the local governments directly and support them. Absolutely with humanitarian aid, but not only. We believe that this capacity development that has taken place before is needed just as much now because it will be the prerequisite for the reconstruction of Ukraine, says Susanna Dellans, program director at Sida, during the same seminar.

Even the Swedish branch of the International Center for Local Democracy (ICLD) has opened up unique partnerships where the Gotland region and Mariestad municipality are in close dialogue with Ukrainian municipalities.

- It is an exchange of experience where you learn from each other and where it is often an aha experience about how good a municipality abroad can be at, for example, citizen dialogue. And there Sweden has a lot to learn from its partnerships, says Johan Lilja, Secretary General of ICLD, in an interview with Utvecklingsmagasinet.

Democracy development work begins at the local level, according to Johan Lilja, ICLD's general secretary. Photo: ICLD.
The threat from Russia and Ukraine's continued democratization

But with Russia's invasion, the risk of re-centralization has become highly topical.

Erik Faxgård, project manager at SKR International. Photo: SKR.

- Right now, the laws of war prevail and a war almost always means a return to centralization. We hope it will be temporary, but there are many who are genuinely worried. However, everything indicates that President Volodymyr Zelenskyj and his cabinet want decentralization to continue, says Erik Faxgård in an interview with Utvecklingsmagasinet.

The political will for the decentralization reform is also strongly rooted in the population. Opinion surveys of the non-profit organization International Republican Institute, which works on promoting democracy and political inclusion in Ukraine, indicates that support for decentralization reform is widespread and that the country is significantly more united today compared to 2014 during the annexation of Crimea.

Measurements of Freedom House confirms that decentralization is still going on at the same time as the war is raging in full swing. Their index of local democratic governance in Ukraine has increased in 2022, becoming more reliable, transparent and inclusive. Thus, it seems that the dilemma between a tougher grip on the nation's security and further promoting the democratization process is resolved through the decentralization of power, says Natalya Sabadash, researcher in political science from Chernivtsi Yuriy Fedkovych National University.

But while the political will for democracy is strong and decentralization is fueling Ukraine's resilience, there are other troubling developments as a result of Russia's invasion.

Even before the invasion, the threat from Russia has tilted the role of the presidency ever more steeply towards that of commander-in-chief and introduces the risk of authoritarian political forces taking ever greater liberties to operate outside the principle of the rule of lawr, say Mikhail Minakov, political thinker and philosopher, and Mathew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

- One issue the Ukrainians must not shy away from is not letting the fear of misinformation and pressure from Russia shut down free media and dissent. The second issue is the issue of ethnicity. The biggest threat to local democracy would be if you exclude various Russian-speaking groups, says Johan Lilja.

Free media have been restricted during the year and domestic sanctions, issued by the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) authority, have been placed on a number of journalists, leading to the shutdown of three television channels, the same Freedom House report shows. The restrictions follow on from anti-oligarch legislation in autumn 2021 that mandates President Zelenskyi and the NSDC to register and place sanctions on individuals, private companies and media companies they believe are linked to oligarchs – without judicial review.

The report points out that while Ukraine has made progress in terms of legislation that respects and promotes civil society, ethnic minorities and human rights, these have been balanced by setbacks that have meant increased power for the presidency and the NSDC where the space for dissent has been increasingly limited.

Democracy development work must be based on building resilience, which starts at the local level, says Johan Lilja. The efforts of Sida, SKR International, ICLD and Sweden's municipalities have thus been a small but important step on the way in redirecting democracy support for democracy defense towards the third wave of autocratization.

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