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Far from Kyiv, Direct Democracy Takes Root in Ukraine

Last May in Chernivtsi, a small city tucked away in southwestern Ukraine, a group of 50 citizens representing the city’s housing associations (known by Ukrainians as OSBBs) pledged to form an organization that would represent the interests of all homeowners and hold the municipal government to account on a wide variety issues, from trash collection to utilities.

Many of these citizens had never engaged in public life, but they are all now civic leaders, ready to collectively guide the development of their community at a critical time for all Ukrainian cities. This network, and the OSBB Forum where the group formed, were the results of a two-year joint effort between IRI’s Center for Global Impact and IRI Ukraine.

Four years after entering office, the post-Maidan national government has struggled to end corruption and revamp the Ukrainian state. However, city governments, spurred by public demand and empowered by the decentralization law, are moving forward with their own local reform. To ensure that citizens are included in their local governments’ decisions, IRI is working to strengthen cooperation between residents and public officials in over a dozen cities. The Institute’s programming helps citizens organize and advocate for their interests before local government and helps government officials respond to their constituents in substantial ways. In Chernivtsi, this approach opened a pathway for citizens to become directly involved in the development of their city.

The effort began in 2016, when IRI conducted a Vulnerabilities to Corruption Assessment (VCA) in Chernivtsi, a study into ways civil society and local government could work together to advance local reforms. The organization had previously conducted VCAs in Mongolia, Indonesia and the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. Each time, they systematically consulted a variety of stakeholders and identified opportunities for cooperation.

The Chernivtsi VCA revealed that both the mayor and residents were interested in solving housing issues.   Around the city, apartment dwellers were forming OSBBs - a new type of housing association, in which apartment dwellers directly and jointly manage the affairs of their building. Other apartments rely on local government to take care of the building, providing an opportunity for local officials to award corrupt contracts and overcharge residents for services. OSBBs, therefore, represent both an opportunity to build citizenship and reduce corruption. As the VCA concluded, OSSBs could “serve as a critical step toward enhancing the local self-governance of communities across Ukraine.”

An activist participates in the OSBB Forum, where more than ninety officials and citizens gathered to discuss local housing and urban development issues.

Despite their potential and growing popularity, many government officials and ordinary citizens knew little about OSBBs. Residents did not how to join an association or start one’s own. City hall didn’t even know how OSSBs were active. In response, IRI designed a year-long project to enhance OSBBs’ use as a mechanism for citizens and government to work together on urban issues affecting residents.

With funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, IRI Ukraine implemented a series of trainings for both local government and citizens on the role of OSBBs in society, and how they can serve as an inclusive bond between citizens and state. At the beginning, the initiative encountered a major obstacle: only a handful of citizens were attending the trainings. Poor communication among civil society made publicizing the events challenging.

Eventually, IRI’s on-the-ground facilitator personally cold-called more than 200 OSBB representatives to inform them of the opportunities. Attendance spiked immediately. Participants began talking to each other before and after seminars, in person and through a dedicated Facebook group. In discussions about everything from organizational leadership to understanding the pricing of utilities, residents formed tight networks.

On the day of IRI’s OSBB Forum, these citizens gathered together to meet face-to-face with the mayor, city council members and the head of the housing department. They presented a list of six ambitious demands to the local mayor, including regular meetings with the mayor’s office and city council, formal cooperation with multiple municipal departments and even a new page on the city’s official website for their constituents. Remarkably, the mayor publicly agreed to all six demands and appointed a group of advisors to personally represent him in meetings with these citizens.

In a country which ranks 130th in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, one city is directly including their citizens in discussions about the future development of their community. As citizens work together with their local government and bring noticeable changes to the community, they will begin to trust that democratic institutions can make life better. Some civic leaders may even run for public office, relying on their partners for support and building an electoral constituency, instead of a patron-client relationship.

Chernivtsi’s accomplishments thus far present a model for the villages, small towns and cities across the country that strive to change their political culture. IRI, for its part, will continue to engage with local communities across the country, and to support all Ukrainians in their struggle to determine their own destiny.