The International Republican Institute (IRI) recently released an excellent poll that surveyed citizens on the state of Ukraine’s local and municipal governance. Most polling in Ukraine has focused on national or regional-level issues like attitudes toward NATO and EU membership, or voter preferences in an upcoming election. So IRI’s Ukrainian Municipal Survey, now in its third year, is especially useful because it sheds light on the challenges and issues that Ukrainians face in their everyday lives.
The poll shows that the vast majority of Ukrainians believe their country is moving in the wrong direction—the most pessimistic among them live in Ukraine’s south and east. These numbers are far lower than they were in 2015 and 2016 and, in short, they indicate that the hope and promise of the Maidan revolution is dwindling if not collapsing.
Yet, in 13 of the 22 cities surveyed, a majority of residents are actually increasingly optimistic with the view that life in their particular city is moving in a positive direction—and in larger numbers than in the two previous annual surveys. And no city’s residents are more hopeful and satisfied with their municipality’s progress than the central city of Vinnytsia, which received the highest marks for its overall “quality of public goods and services.”
The kinds of things that often make life in Ukraine difficult and annoying for ordinary citizens are relatively easy in Vinnytsia. The city of 372,000 was ranked first by its citizens in the quality of its sidewalks, medical institutions, roads, public transportation, cultural venues, post-secondary and secondary education, and disability access. It also got good marks in street lighting, the success of its industrial development, public parks and gardens, sports facilities, street markets, heating services, and the local environment. The cities of Lutsk (far north-west), and Kharkiv (northeast) received similarly high marks.
Meanwhile, the south-central city of Kherson sticks out as the most dissatisfied municipality in Ukraine. Its neighbor, Mykolayiv, and the far-western burg of Uzhgorod are nearly as unsatisfied.
Home to about 300,000 people, Kherson was dead last in the marks for the overall “quality of public goods and services.” No wonder then that only 20 percent of the surveyed residents said they were “definitely” proud of their city—a number that fell from 34 percent in a year. When asked what made them proud of their city, fully 18 percent answered that “there is nothing to be proud of“—the highest level of dissatisfaction in Ukraine.
In the areas where Vinnytsia’s residents were generally contented, Kherson’s citizens were despondent. Kherson has the distinction of being rated by its citizens as the worst place “to obtain high-quality education for different professions,” second to last to “freely exercise your spiritual beliefs,” and, the most difficult city to navigate via private vehicles, public transportation, and cycle.
Where Vinnytsia residents are generally happy with their schools, Kherson’s residents rated their schools—kindergartens, secondary, and post-secondary—as terrible. Their ratings for the quality of local medical institutions, street lighting, sports facilities, street markets, the quality of the water supply were the worst in all Ukraine.
Kherson also ranked at the bottom in the quality of their sidewalks, trash collection, sewage, the “variety of cultural and leisure activities,” cultural venues, public transport, roads, industrial development, public parks and gardens, police activity, parking, and heating services.
The difference in the success of these two cities lies in their management, the local economy, and the unfortunate difference that political favor can make in Ukraine—and, the three are closely intertwined.
Vinnytsia got the best marks for the “manner in which local authorities treat” citizens, while Kherson got the worst. The cities achieved, respectively, the best and worst waiting times for city services, the quality of that service, staff knowledge, and the clarity of local officials’ decisions and advice.
Kherson is extremely dissatisfied with their mayor (only 20 percent are very or somewhat satisfied), while in Vinnytsia 51 percent say the mayor is very or somewhat satisfactory. Kherson’s city council gets the lowest marks, while Vinnytsia is near the top. Fully 60 percent of Vinnytsians agree or somewhat agree that “the [city] authorities have demonstrated transparent activity.” Kherson is second to last (18 percent).
Most impressively, 73 percent of Vinnytsia residents believe that their city has been either very or somewhat “responsive to citizen priorities.” Only 11 percent of Khersonites feel the same. Indeed, they are so dissatisfied that in February, several activists took the mayor from his office and forcibly slid him along the icy sidewalks to demonstrate their poor state.
Since Volodymyr Groisman became the mayor of Vinnytsia in 2006, the city has worked to bring in foreign development organizations like the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Nordic Environment Finance Corporation (NEFCO), the Government of Switzerland, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and Polish Aid (Polska Pomoc). These development groups have helped Vinnytsia build a new, transparent city hall, modernize the tram system, and optimized the energy efficiency of the city’s heating system.
During the same period, Kherson has seen a vice-mayor arrested for taking a $3,000 bribe, its city transport companies have gone on strike, and former mayor (and current member of city council), Vladimir Sal’do, was arrested for kidnapping in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps positive change is on the horizon because recently Kherson has begun to follow Vinnytsia’s example and has initiated several international development projects now in the early stages of development.
Politics and Money
Vinnytsia also benefits from its close ties to both the president and prime minister of Ukraine.
Ukrainian oligarch and President Petro Poroshenko adopted the city as his home town many years ago. His chocolate company Roshen has been good for the city, which also serves as its informal headquarters and houses a sweets factory first opened in 1929. In 2011, it inaugurated the Roshen Fountain, a dancing water and light show on the Southern Bug River that runs from spring to autumn and has become quite the tourist attraction.
After the Maidan revolution, Mayor Groisman swiftly rose to the post of Prime Minister of Ukraine. His success in revitalizing and modernizing Vinnytsia helped elevate him to the prime minister post, as did his close relationship with President Poroshenko.
Their combined influence has been indispensable to Vinnytsia’s success. Despite Poroshenko’s promise to sell Roshen upon taking office, he rather decided to transfer it into a blind trust some 18 months after taking office. In the meantime, Roshen continued to expand its reach, and after opening a milk factory in Vinnytsia in June 2014—the same month Poroshenko was elected president—it announced plans to expand the factory, creating more jobs in Vinnytsia. Kherson has no such benefactors.
Effective city management and the proximity to powerful politicians have helped make Vinnytsia thrive economically and become a far more attractive place to live than Kherson—in spite of the economic potential offered by Kherson’s warmer temperatures and Black Sea ports.
It seems readily apparent that Vinnytsia success with development agencies has also helped it attract both foreign and local investment, while Kherson continues to operate in the old way. And, even though its powerful friends now in Kyiv have been instrumental in its success, Vinnytsia’s leaders made the hard decisions necessary to transform its economy.
Meaningful change that makes a positive impact on the lives of Ukrainians is possible, but the tale of these two cities makes it clear that the competent management of domestic and international resources, the willingness to make hard choices, and perhaps a little political support is a winning formula in Ukraine.