Steam train in era of Hyperloop: why administrative division of Ukraine is hopelessly out-of-date

30 January 2020
Steam train in era of Hyperloop: why administrative division of Ukraine is hopelessly out-of-date
Home > Analysis > Steam train in era of Hyperloop: why administrative division of Ukraine is hopelessly out-of-date

Nazar Zabolotnyi, analyst of the Centre of United Actions, for LB.UA

Recently, Volodymyr Zelensky for the second time recalled his draft bill On Changes to the Constitution (on decentralization). Not of his own volition but under public pressure and taking into account recommendations from the Western partners. Critics of the presidential bill emphasized that it does not give more authority to heads of territorial communities and local councils — despite its title. Instead of giving more power to local governments, the bill proposes to concentrate it in the hands of one person: the President himself. Therefore, it was an attempt at usurping power rather than decentralizing it.

The idea to appropriate the institute of prefects — like the one in France, but adapted to Ukrainian realities, — was criticized the most. In Zelensky’s version, prefects would have had not only the authority to exercise state powers in the regions but also control local governments and even initiate impeachment of local councils and mayors if they violate the Constitution.

Among presidential proposals there were no substantial changes to the administrative and territorial structure. They only excluded from the Constitution a list of oblasts (such a list should not have existed in the unitary state in the first place) and renamed raions into districts.

These minor repairs hardly meet the needs of Ukraine today. The population has decreased significantly, its distribution changed, and the whole world around us is different. So while the establishment is deciding what and how to change, let us try to examine how and why the modern system of territorial and administrative division has emerged, what are contemporary trends in its development.

The emergence of the current administrative and territorial division system

The modern model of territorial governance emerged in the 19 century. At the time, Europe was shaken by a wave of revolutions. The power of monarchs was restricted by constitutions or overthrown, principalities and empires were superseded by nation-states. Together with emperors, the nobility has also ceased to be a ruling class in Europe.

After monarchies and nobility became things of the past, people for the first time had to decide how to organize the governance in their states. Now the aim was to serve not the interests of a ruler but provide safety, education, and medicine for regular people. At the same time, this system had to give means for the authorities to manage provinces: implement their policies, collect taxes, and provide their citizens with basic services like urgent medical aid or primary education. Other functions were performed by the local self-government of territorial communities.

Паровоз у добу Гіперлупа: Чому адмінустрій України безнадійно застарів

In those times, railway networks were only developing and most transportation was done by horses. Thus, it was quite a task to communicate governmental decisions to every corner of the country. The same goes for getting back information about the implementation of those decisions.

To process information was even harder. To manage the country, it was necessary to have immense volumes of data about people, their property and taxes, education, and occupation. This information had to be gathered in thousands of localities spread throughout the country and systematized. The task to process all these heaps of papers was a hard one.

To make life easier, states established systems of local administrations that served multiple purposes. On the one hand, they maintained the connection between the central government and communities of cities, towns, and villages throughout the country. On the other hand, these administrations were intermediary points of processing information the government needed.

An average administration of the first level spanned several dozens or a hundred localities that provided it with necessary information. It was usually situated in a town or big village serving as an administrative center. There, government officials aggregated the data and passed it further to a higher level. This aggregated data from several districts was processed at the level of a province. There it was again aggregated and only then sent to the capital. As a result, the government had to work with information from several dozens of regions and not thousands of villages and towns.

Likewise, though in an opposite direction, governmental decisions were passed back to the regions.

To sum up, our current system of administrative and territorial division emerged as a workaround allowing governments to rule efficiently despite significant constraints of slow transportation and complicated processing of information from thousands of sources. That is why in countries with small areas exists at least one intermediary layer between communities and the government while in big countries there are at least two. Communities and intermediary administrative units (in Ukraine — raions and oblasts) comprise a system of administrative and territorial division which is complemented by the system of local governments and local state administrations.

Паровоз у добу Гіперлупа: Чому адмінустрій України безнадійно застарів

Changes in the world during the last decades

If we try to describe changes that humankind has gone through during the last 150 years, it would be safe to say that the whole world underwent a profound transformation. Today, an intercontinental trip takes less time than it took to get from the capital to the center of some province a century and a half ago. The problem of communication between the central government and its regional offices disappeared. Ministers do not need to summon their subordinates to the capital if they want to talk: phones and a video connection are available to everyone.

Means of communication have undergone drastic changes. Thanks to the internet, data can be transferred blazing-fast, computers and software allow to process data engaging much fewer people.

Finally, there are unified state registries. The state accumulates immense volumes of information about the population, its needs and economic activity. Access to this information is open for every government official that needs it and has the necessary clearance, some of the registries are even open to the public. The work done by tens of thousands of people now can be done by a small group of officials armed with computers.

Therefore, a governance model with several intermediary layers became obsolete thanks to the evolution of transportation and communications.

Паровоз у добу Гіперлупа: Чому адмінустрій України безнадійно застарів

Changes in Ukraine

Ukraine has changed even more. First of all, our country is now independent, Soviet totalitarianism has been replaced by democracy. Our administrative and territorial division introduced in the aftermath of WW2, however, has not changed much.

The Soviet-time division into oblasts and raions served not only the need to communicate data and govern the territories but also ensured total control by the state over the people and enforced the planned economy. Its design has not taken into consideration actual economic ties between people and territories. In other words, we had a system that subdued people into serving the state instead of making the state work for the people as has to be in a democracy.

During the years of independence, the population of the country significantly decreased, millions of people moved from villages and small towns to oblast centers. As a result, half-deserted provincial communities now cannot sustain themselves, ruins of schools and hospitals became a common sight.

The process of community amalgamation has solved the problem only partially and only at the level of communities themselves. The infrastructure of raions and oblasts remained, for the most part, in poor shape and its maintenance still depends on subventions from the government budget. Raions and oblasts, as before, do not have enough money to meet their needs. What is more, they cannot afford that in principle because the infrastructure was designed when the population was bigger.

For example, since the middle of the past century, a raion was supposed to have one big hospital per 170 thousand people. Now raions have 50 thousand inhabitants on average. It means that raions have fewer taxpayers and less need for medical services. However, instead of trying to optimize the infrastructure, i.e. either maintain less patient capacity or close some of the hospitals, we for almost three decades distributed our limited budget resources trying to preserve everything. So there is a question: should we merge raions and their infrastructures or there is no point in doing that anymore? The merger is a necessity caused by the decrease in population and accompanying decrease of funds in local budgets.

Meanwhile, due to decentralization many powers previously exercised by state administration at raion or oblast levels have been transferred closer to people — to territorial communities. The remaining functions of local executive bodies can easily be optimized or have been optimized already with the help of modern technology — the so-called digitalization. In the end, state administrations will have too little work to have both raion and oblast layers. One of the two is redundant.

Problems administrative division is supposed to solve

First of all, we have to understand that there is no ideal model of administrative and territorial division. Each of them is established by a particular state to solve some particular problems and perform some particular tasks. Our country is not exceptional in this respect and faces a number of challenges that can be at least partially met by reforming the system of governance of the territory.

The first task is to reconsider regional identities. Borders between some of our oblasts are defined not by local historical or cultural differences like, for example, between boykos and hutsuls, but by been under the rule of different states and empires. A famous borderline between Khmelnytskyi and Ternopil oblasts along the Zbruch River appeared and sunk into our consciousness because it was first a border between Russian and Austrian empires and then divided the Second Polish Republic and the USSR.

Similar is the history of borders of Chernivtsi oblast — in the years between two world wars it was a part of Romania — and Carpathian Ruthenia — it was a part of Czechoslovakia and later, before the start of WW2, was occupied by Hungary. The mere existence of these borders makes us think that Ukrainians on different sides of the Zbruch River are somehow different and thus undermines the national identity while fostering regional identities. By preserving these borders, we stir up chauvinistic circles in the neighboring countries — like in Hungary about the Carpathian Ruthenia — and create unnecessary security risks for our state. For that reason, the memory about been under the rule of other countries has to be preserved not by administrative division but by history only.

The second task for the reform of administrative and territorial division is to establish a unified governmental hierarchy by cutting off the President from it. Administrative and territorial division, among other things, determines the system of executive power in the regions. In Ukraine, it is highly inefficient because heads of local state administrations are under the President and not the Prime Minister. As a result, the Cabinet does not have the necessary leverage to efficiently implement its policies at the local level.

Presidents use local administrations as means to establish their authority in the regions. The most prominent role administrations play during the election campaigning by transforming themselves into informal campaign offices for a party or candidate supported by the establishment.

Instead, they should perform tasks they were created to perform: exercise executive authority at a local level, i.e. implement government policies like medical or educational reforms and not just be a crowd scene for the President during ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Паровоз у добу Гіперлупа: Чому адмінустрій України безнадійно застарів

Third and probably the most important challenge the reform has to meet — to create a human-centered system of local governance. People often do not understand not just the responsibilities of different central government bodies but also who does what at the local level. This confusion is used by corrupted officials. The system of making even the simplest decisions is so complicated that it is easier for people just to pay the bribe than to go through the hell of bureaucracy and red tape. The more cumbersome is the system of government, the higher are corruption risks.

Another drawback of a complicated governance model is that people cannot effectively control something they do not understand. The clearer is the distinction between local governments and local state administrations, the better control over officials and their performance is maintained.


Even this brief analysis of our present situation, including problems critical for the country, points to an obvious conclusion: the model of administrative and territorial division proposed in draft bills on changing the Constitution promoted by the previous and current presidents do not meet the needs and challenges that our country faces today.

It does not remove a redundant intermediary executive layer that due to decentralization and modern technology will not play any significant role. It does not solve the problem of the excessive influence of the President on the executive branch and even increases this influence. Despite all promises, it does not lay the foundation to strengthen national unity within the country.

Finally, it does not propose a simple, transparent, and easy-to-understand hierarchy of state administrations. In the end, proposed changes will have only negative consequences for all of us and absolutely every aspect of our lives: from access to high-quality education and medical services to a favorable business environment.

That is why it is crucial for the authorities first to understand what problems they want to solve and what goals they want to achieve before they start drafting some new changes to the Constitution. Without a thorough analysis of how these changes will influence the lives and future of the people, it is dangerous to just copy the governance model of some other country: our society has its specific problems and instead of solving them we can just create new ones.