The following is a guest post from Columbia University political scientist Timothy Frye. Links to previous Monkey Cage posts regarding developments in Ukraine can be found at the bottom of this post.

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Listening to President Vladimir Putin discuss political legitimacy Tuesday was like Lady Gaga lecturing about modesty, but strengthening the legitimacy of political authority at the regional and central level is a critical issue for Ukraine. The current government in Kiev came to power not through an armed coup supported by foreign governments as claimed by the Russian government, but through a mix of capitulation by then President Viktor Yanukovych’s supporters in Parliament, popular resistance on the Maidan, and negotiations among political elites.  Going forward, the current government and it successor in Kiev will continue to face the problem of gaining broad legitimacy in light of Ukraine’s regional divisions.

After some initial missteps, such as passing a law diminishing the status of the Russian language (since vetoed by the interim president) and creating a government that does little to address concerns of the Russian-speakers in the eastern and southern regions, the current government in Kiev has shown greater sensitivity to this issue.  Moreover, they have done little to validate claims from Moscow that military bases in Crimea are under immediate threat or that Ukrainian nationalists – despicable as are their policies – are poised to engage in ethnic pogroms.

Nonetheless, political elites in Kiev face the daunting task of creating a political system that gives Ukrainians throughout the country a greater sense that their interests are taken into account.  Curtailing the powers of the presidency was an important first step that reduces the “winner take all” nature of Ukrainian politics.  Free and fair elections at the national level is an important next step.

One effort under way to change the political rules of the game in Ukraine is being overseen by Tymofiy Mylovanov from the University of Pittsburgh, but is supported by a long list of social scientists (including Nobel Prize winner Roger Myerson).  Among other things, this proposal favors political and economic decentralization as a means to promote democracy and stability in Ukraine. To quote the proposal, the idea is that greater decentralization would

1)     Be an effective guarantee that important local economic and social decisions are made by the people most affected by these decisions rather than be dictated by whichever party comes to power in Kiev.
2)     Reduce the stakes in the conflict in national politics and help focus attention not on whether one region will impose its will on another, but on the urgent economic and political problems facing Ukraine
3)     [Promote] a vibrant local democracy that would do much to strengthen Ukraine’s national political institutions and provide a forum where new local politicians can prove themselves, gain the trust of the people, and get executive experience.

Among many ideas, one proposal might be to allow provincial councils to choose a governor.  Currently, provincial governors are appointed by the central government in Kiev – an arrangement that gives local citizens little stake in provincial politics and ensures that the provincial governor will be as concerned with satisfying their bosses in Kiev as catering to the average citizen in their province.  Allowing local councils to choose governors in the current environment runs the risk of ethnic outbidding with candidates making more and more extreme appeals to their co-ethnics, but Ukraine’s regions are large enough to provide for some diversity of views.  There is also the problem of choosing a governor in Crimea which is currently not under the control of the Ukrainian government.  Since it is likely that the provincial council in Crimea will have the support of the Russian-speaking majority, Russia would have reason to go along with the election.

And of course, the devil is in the details in designing institutions so careful attention to paid to among other things, the timing and sequence of elections.  Based on evidence from post-Franco Spain, Al Stepan and Juan Linz argue that to promote a stronger commitment to national politics it is important to hold national elections first and then hold regional elections.  Ukraine is not Spain, but it seems plausible to expect that holding national elections before provincial elections makes sense in the Ukrainian context as well.   Perhaps the Mylovanov initiative comes from desperation, and it certainly is no silver bullet, but it seems a proposal worth considering.

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Note: The original version of this post referred to elections for local governors as one implication of the Mylovanov Initiative.  However, it has been updated to reflect the fact that local gubernatorial elections are not at this time a part of the proposal.

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Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage: