As war grinds on, old Ukrainian political divisions are reemerging

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, Ukraine, stands in front of a damaged building in his city on April 4.

CHERNIHIV, Ukraine – There has been an unofficial agreement among Ukraine’s raucous and highly competitive politicians since Russia invaded: Put aside old differences and form a unified front against Moscow.

It’s been a remarkable shift in a country plagued by political infighting, corruption and Russian influence since it declared independence from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991.

But now, as the war grinds on and billions of dollars in international aid pours in, cracks and prewar tensions are beginning to emerge between the central government and local leaders.

Recent frictions between President Volodymyr Zelensky, the highly popular wartime leader, and Ukrainian mayors who are trying to defend or rebuild their devastated cities and towns underscore Ukraine’s mounting internal challenges as it approaches six months of war.

Mayors and analysts told The Washington Post that Zelensky’s government appears to be trying to sideline mayors to maintain control of recovery aid and to weaken any future political rivals. More broadly, four mayors told The Post there is growing concern that amid the war, Zelensky’s administration is backtracking on promises and plans to remove a lingering vestige of the Soviet era by decentralizing power and granting more authority to regional and local governments.

“Autocratic tendencies are beginning to develop in Ukraine during the war,” said Borys Filatov, 50, the powerful mayor of Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine, a city that has become a key conduit for arms and aid to the country’s embattled eastern front. “They are trying to dominate the political field . . . however, we are not opponents.”

Filatov said mayors have been at the front line of defending cities and they want more control over how their communities rebuild.

He criticized Zelensky’s government, as did others, with one major caveat: No matter the internal divides, he said, the bigger foe is Russia, and the West must continue to support Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty.

Filatov, who was reelected in 2020 by a wide majority, has clashed with Zelensky in the past. Recently, Zelensky’s government reportedly threatened to revoke the Ukrainian citizenship of one oligarch close to Filatov because he holds dual nationality, which Ukraine bans. Another oligarch and close confidant, also with dual citizenship, said he was barred last month from returning to the country after a trip.

“It’s a dangerous slope,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the Russia and Eurasia program of the London-based think tank Chatham House. “For Ukraine to win this war it has to be built off this idea [that] mayors are not competition but viewed as part of the team . . . where there is central command at the time of war, while at the same local governments can address the problems as they see fit.”

These rifts with local politicians come as Zelensky has made controversial changes within his own cabinet, last month suspending the head of Ukraine’s security services and its prosecutor general as he also announced a widespread investigation into “treason and collaboration activities.”

Ukrainian mayors have traditionally aligned themselves with the ruling national party to gain access, Lutsevych said. Many mayors have supported both former president Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally who was ousted in Ukraine’s 2013-14 revolution, and his more reformist successor, Petro Poroshenko. In recent years, some mayors have opted to create their own personal political parties and alliances.

But while the party in power nationally has typically dominated locally, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party faired badly in the 2020 local elections. After having won a majority of seats in the 2019 parliamentary election, Zelensky’s party didn’t win a mayoral seat in any major city: Incumbents beat out Servant of the People candidates in 10 key mayoral elections. In a personal defeat for Zelensky, his party’s candidate for mayor in his hometown of Kryvyi Rih lost in a runoff even after the main opponent dropped out.

The war has boosted Zelensky, who now has wide public support. The president’s nightly addresses from the capital are credited with bolstering Ukraine’s morale, despite a war that has destroyed entire cities and towns across the country and cost countless thousands of lives.

As the world rushes to help Ukraine, the central government is the main conduit for the tens of billions of dollars in aid that countries and agencies have pledged to rebuild its shattered cities. It has also created regional military administrations whose power often supersedes that of civilian local governments and which are funded directly by Kyiv.

That has led to frustration among mayors, who argue that regional leaders are better positioned than central government officials to quickly receive and direct funds and to know what their constituents need. Amid the wreckage, mayors are trying to establish their own international partnerships with countries or cities willing to fund specific reconstruction programs.

Lutsevych said wars tend to bring out “new heroes,” and in Ukraine’s case it’s very likely that some of them will become mayors.

Among the most critical of Zelensky has been Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, which borders Belarus and was one of the cities near Kyiv most damaged by Russian forces.

Atroshenko, 55, spent the war’s first weeks with his constituents under constant bombardment while rallying global support for Ukraine. But in July, he broke with that national unity and directly criticized Zelensky, accusing the president’s “associates” of trying to remove him from power.

“Today, instead of resisting the attacks of the enemy, the city is forced to endure the attacks of your subordinates,” Atroshenko said in a video posted July 8 on his Facebook page. “Central and local authorities should work together against the enemy, not against each other.”

Six days before Atroshenko posted the video, a Ukrainian border guard prevented him from leaving the country to attend a conference in Switzerland about Ukraine’s recovery. Atroshenko, pacing back and forth in an interview with The Post, said it was the second time in recent weeks that central government agents had barred him from traveling for an aid-related event.

Ukraine has barred all military age men from leaving the country since Russia’s Feb. 24 full-scale invasion. Atroshenko said he needed to travel to raise money for Chernihiv, where he said the heavily damaged heating system needs to be fixed before winter.

After the mayor posted video of the July 2 encounter, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, shot back on Telegram: “I remind those who have forgotten that there is a war going on in Ukraine! This especially applies to the border regions and those that were still very recently occupied. The danger has not passed!”

If the “signal is not clear,” Tymoshenko said, he reminded mayors that their communities could be helped “without you.”

Tymoshenko declined interview requests.

Rivne Mayor Oleksandr Tretyak, 35, has a constituency and concerns that are very different from Atroshenko’s, but he sympathized with his colleague’s frustration.

Tretyak was elected in 2020, making him one of Ukraine’s youngest mayors and newest figures in a field occupied by career politicians. He leads the western Ukrainian city of Rivne, which has been spared missile attacks but has absorbed thousands of displaced Ukrainians.

Atroshenko “is trying to do his best to attract investors, to invite business, to invite other countries to help, to solve the problem,” Tretyak said. “That is a normal thing. I am trying to do the same. . . . I cannot just sit here in my city and wait for when my central government gives me some help.”