In a country wracked with political infighting, corruption and Russian influence since the declaration of independence in 1991, politicians put their old differences aside and formed a united front against Russia following the invasion.
But as the war intensified and billions of dollars in international aid poured in, pre-war fissures and tensions began to emerge between the central government and local leaders, according to the Washington Post.
Recent disagreements between the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and Ukrainian mayors trying to defend or rebuild their devastated cities and towns underscore Ukraine’s growing internal challenges as the war approaches its sixth month.
Mayors and analysts told The Washington Post that Zelensky’s government appears to be trying to sideline local leaders to maintain control of recovery aid and weaken any future political rivals.
More broadly, several mayors told the US newspaper there is a growing concern that, in the midst of the war, the Zelensky administration is reneging on promises and plans to remove Soviet-era remnants by decentralizing power and granting more power to regional and local governments.
“Authoritarian tendencies began to develop in Ukraine during the war. They are trying to dominate the political sphere … but we are not adversaries,” said Boris Filatov, mayor of Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine, a city that has become a major conduit for arms and aid for the country’s beleaguered Eastern Front.
Filatov added that mayors have been on the front lines of defending cities and want more control over how their communities are rebuilt.
He criticized Zelensky’s government, warning that regardless of internal divisions, the biggest enemy is Russia, and the West should continue to support Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty.
These disagreements with local politicians come as Zelensky has made controversial changes within his government. Last month, he fired the head of Ukraine’s security services and prosecutor, and also announced a wide-ranging investigation into “treasonous and cooperative activities”.
“It’s a dangerous slope,” said Orisia Lutsevich, a fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program of London-based think tank Chatham House.
“For Ukraine to win this war, it must be built on this idea (that) mayors are not competitors but are seen as part of the team,” she added.
Lutsevich said Ukrainian mayors have traditionally allied themselves with the ruling National Party to gain access to the party. Several mayors have backed former president Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally who was ousted in the 2013-2014 Ukraine revolution, and his reformist successor Petro Poroshenko.
In recent years, some mayors have chosen to create personal political parties and alliances.
As the world rushes to help Ukraine, the central government is the main link to the tens of billions of dollars in aid pledged by countries and agencies to rebuild its shattered cities.
The central government also established regional military administrations, whose authority often superseded that of civilian local governments, which were directly financed by Kyiv.
This has led to frustration among local mayors, who argue that regional leaders are in a better position than central government officials to receive and direct money quickly and know what their constituents need.
Mayors try to build their own international partnerships with countries or cities willing to fund specific reconstruction programmes.
Vladislav Atrushenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, was one of the local leaders most critical of Zelensky after the border town with Belarus was damaged by Russian bombardment.
Atrushenko, 55, spent the first weeks of the war with his constituents under constant bombardment while rallying global support for Ukraine. But in July he criticized Zelensky directly and accused the president’s “aides” of trying to remove him from power.
“Today, instead of resisting enemy attacks, the city has to endure the attacks of your subordinates. Central and local authorities should work together against the enemy, not against each other,” he said in a video posted on July 8 on his Facebook page.
Six days before Atrochenko released the video, a Ukrainian border guard prevented him from leaving the country to attend a conference in Switzerland on Ukraine’s recovery.
Atrochenko told the Washington Post that this is the second time in recent weeks that central government agents have prevented him from traveling to an aid-related event.
Ukraine has banned all men of military age from leaving the country since the massive Russian invasion on February 24. Atrochenko said he needs to travel to raise money for Chernihiv, as he said the badly damaged heating system needs to be fixed before winter.
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