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Polish MP: Ukraine 'Better Prepared' For Local Government Reform Than Poland In 1989

Polish lawmaker Marcin Swiecicki
Polish lawmaker Marcin Swiecicki
WARSAW -- Today, Poland is a unitary state divided into a lot of working parts -- 16 regions, 379 counties, and 2,479 municipalities, all with their own functioning governments.

But 25 years ago, when it became the first Soviet satellite to hold partially free elections, Poland was a rigidly centralized single state that had little idea how to meet public demand to restore power to local communities.

"In Poland in '89, we really didn't have any experience in self-government," says Marcin Swiecicki, an economist who served in the cabinet of Poland's first post-communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. "Except for the prewar experience, of course. But that was more than 40 years earlier, so there weren't many people who remembered it. There were maybe three specialists on local self-government in Poland."

Luckily, Mazowiecki knew all three -- a trio of lawyers versed in the history of Polish and German administration, who went on to work around the clock to establish the system of local government now enshrined in the Polish Constitution.

Swiecicki, who watched the Polish process evolve from scratch, is now tasked with helping Ukraine carry out its own decentralization. The former minister, who went on to serve as Warsaw mayor and is now a lawmaker in the Polish parliament, says 2014 Ukraine has some advantages that 1989 Poland did not.

"Ukraine, I would say, is much better prepared, because they're experienced with local government," says Swiecicki, 67, who has traveled to Kyiv a half-dozen times in two months since being appointed by President Bronislaw Komorowki to farm out Polish experts to advise Kyiv on decentralization reform.

Central Elite

"Even if [that government] is broken and not fully-formed -- nevertheless, they've accumulated a lot of experience. They know what the problems are."

Structurally, Ukraine already has a vast network of city, district, and regional councils meant to deliver customized governance to the country's 46 million residents.

But both the Euromaidan protests and separatism in the east have made clear that Ukrainian decentralization remains largely theoretical -- and that the bulk of power and money traditionally remains concentrated in Kyiv, in the hands of the central elite.

Desperate to preserve Ukraine's national unity, the newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, has made a priority of addressing resentment in the east, where the Moscow-backed separatists are pushing for federalization -- a scheme that many fear could increase Russia's influence and block Ukraine's ability to further integrate with Europe or strike new military alliances.

Instead, he and other officials are a pushing for genuine decentralization built on the Polish model, in which up to 40 percent of personal income taxes would be kept in local coffers, and mayors and city councils would be given greater say in how to use local budgets.

Swiecicki singles out the efforts of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Volodymyr Groysman, the former Vinnytsya mayor who now serves as deputy prime minister for regional development, to drive the project forward. But he acknowledges the plan may have come "a bit too late" for the east, where separatist violence has contributed to a protracted power vacuum.

"Now it's difficult to communicate with these people," he says. "But nevertheless, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and Deputy Prime Minister Groysman are constantly repeating, 'Listen, regions, we will give you autonomy for your decisions. You will have your own finances, based on your own fiscal basis.' This is a very important part of the solution of the political crisis."

High Expectations In Kyiv

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said on June 9 that Moscow and Kyiv had reached a "mutual understanding" on Poroshenko's plan for peace in the east, which rests in large part on decentralization. But it remains to be seen whether Ukraine's own famously fractious government will throw its weight behind the constitutional reforms needed to enact the decentralization.

Poroshenko is looking to speed up parliamentary elections, as well as local votes in the eastern Donbas region, in hopes of securing more like-minded allies. "There are a lot of challenges," Swiecicki acknowledges.

Swiecicki's focus on decentralization has kept him out of Kyiv's city politics. But as the former mayor of Warsaw, who held the post during the tumultuous transitional years of 1994-99, he has two words of advice for Kyiv's new mayor, Vitali Klitschko: act fast.

"He can count of the support of dedicated activists -- especially in Kyiv. There's many of them," he says. "He can count on the support of the support of foreign advisers. And also, what's very important is that the people are expecting something from him. People are waiting for changes. So there's also an atmosphere where he can count on a good reception for reforms. All the chances are with him right now."

And how long will the goodwill last? Swiecicki laughs ruefully. "You have a few months."