February 1, 2016
In many ways, the problems facing the city of Mykolayiv since the October 2015 local elections are a microcosm of the challenges facing Ukraine's national leaders. The new mayor, with a strong track record of engaging with civil society on anti-corruption efforts and a fresh face to city politics, faces huge obstacles from old faces who wish to maintain the status quo. But just as with the national elected officials, the clock is ticking for the mayor. If he is unable to implement institutional reforms, those who want to keep Ukraine in its paternalistic past will not only block but remove him from office, and in so doing, sow doubts about the ability of educated reformers to make a difference in places like Mykolayiv and beyond.

Mykolayiv Mayor Alexander Senkevich was elected with much fanfare in a runoff election on November 15. Running under the Samopomich Party banner, the 33-year-old successful IT business owner drew support from across the country for his anti-corruption platform. His election to lead a city of more than 500,000 residents in a predominately Russian-speaking city with a legacy as a Soviet shipbuilding center under a party headquartered in western Ukraine was seen as another sign of the country's changing politics. However, the challenges that he faces should give Ukraine watchers pause.

While Samopomich holds the mayorship, it only represents a small minority of ten seats (out of fifty-four) in the city council. The Opposition Bloc, the former Party of Regions manifestation, counts twenty-six seats. Since taking office, Senkevich has had his choices for the important position of secretary of the council blocked by the council, no annual agenda has been approved, and there has been no movement on his reform proposals. The Government of Canada recently pledged to help standup a local "Mykolayiv Development Agency," which would coordinate local projects and international technical assistance for the city, but the city council has not yet approved the project.

The faces of Ukraine's past are playing chess with its citizens, hoping their delay tactics will cast a negative light on the mayor, and eventually lead to a no-confidence vote. Senkevich realizes real action is needed now more than ever, and has sought the support of reformers and experts from across Ukraine to both inspire and provide support for new initiatives.

At the urging of Senkevich, Mykolayiv hosted the "Future of Mykolayiv Forum" on Sunday, January 24, to discuss ideas for moving the city forward. More than 800 people attended. The International Republican Institute, together with the Embassy of Canada, brought municipal reform and innovation experts from across Ukraine to share their ideas tailored for Mykolayiv to jumpstart the economy and spur political reform. National and local leaders explained how national decentralization and budget reform will benefit the community and laid out innovative approaches to municipal service delivery. One of the experts was former President of Georgia and Governor of Odesa Oblast Mikheil Saakashvili, who implored the people of Mykolayiv to have the confidence to take action now. He urged the mayor and city council to make radical reform, not small reforms "here and there." As the governor of a neighboring oblast with similar challenges, Saakashvili said that overregulation and entrenched local interests stymie comprehensive reform.

But the day was not all inspirational speeches. Ordinary citizens and city reformers drafted proposals for the mayor and city council to consider. Participants also pledged to lobby their council members and local political party branches to implement these changes. More than 300 Mykolayiv residents spent their Sunday afternoon drafting and debating policy proposals and local initiatives. Public transport, ecology, local economic development, budgetary and procurement transparency, and ways to encourage greater citizen involvement were hot topics.

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On January 24, more than 300 Mykolayiv residents spent their Sunday afternoon drafting and debating policy proposals and local initiatives.

To conclude the forum, the mayor and city leaders listened to the citizen-driven proposals and laid out concrete steps for bringing those proposals to life. While this forum was just the first step, it was an encouraging sign that reforms may soon come to Mykolayiv.

Michael Druckman is the International Republican Institute's Country Director in Ukraine.