Distinguishing anti-corruption campaigns from political persecution in Ukraine has always been difficult, and even Russia’s invasion has not changed that. The recent arrest of one of the country’s most influential regional politicians, Odesa Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, is the latest episode in a high-profile series of legal proceedings brought against Ukrainian mayors that continues despite the military freeze on political life.

The central government hopes to use the provisions of martial law to root out corruption at the local level while getting rid of inconvenient regional politicians at the same time. It’s true that Ukraine’s mayors are often corrupt, but by targeting individuals, the government is increasingly undermining the very idea of local self-government.

The standoff between the central government and the mayors in Ukraine has been going on since the 2020 local elections: the last major vote before Russia’s invasion. Back then, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party was defeated in the mayoral elections in key cities. The winners were mostly regional heavyweights that draw their support from local business clans.

At the time, it seemed that these regional elites would be the main challenge faced by Zelensky in the future. By the next parliamentary elections, they intended to form their own political project: a diverse alliance of regional elites with a focus on greater local autonomy.

The standoff continued even after the Russian invasion. In April 2023, Poltava Mayor Oleksandr Mamai—whose ten-year rule had seen the destruction of historical sites around the city and attacks on activists and even judges—was fired and given a suspended sentence for embezzlement. Mamai was also eager to exploit Soviet nostalgia in his campaigns, clashing with patriotic voters.

Yet it wasn’t just mayors in the predominantly Russian-speaking southeast of the country—who could be suspected of harboring pro-Russian sympathies—who came into conflict with Kyiv. Chernihiv Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko was also accused of abuse of power and relieved of his duties over the relatively minor misdemeanor of having used a government vehicle for personal purposes.

His downfall was preceded by a long-running public conflict with the presidential administration. Atroshenko had effectively accused the central government and the local governor of failing to take action when Russia invaded. The mayor himself took part in the city’s defense and subsequently received a medal from Zelensky for doing so.

Atroshenko is clearly no angel, and was facing corruption charges even before the war. But his sudden and poorly explained removal from power caused indignation among Poltava residents, 62 percent of whom saw it as the center putting pressure on the local authorities. Other mayors also expressed solidarity with Atroshenko, including Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko. 

The most high-profile conflict between Kyiv and local leaders took place in Odesa, where Mayor Trukhanov was arrested in early May over a six-year-old deal. He began his career as a pro-Russian politician, and much has been written in the media about his alleged criminal past and Russian citizenship. Over time, however, the Odesa mayor’s position became increasingly loyal to Kyiv.

Following Russia’s invasion, Trukhanov led the city’s defense, but the trail of corruption left by him and his team from the very beginning of his tenure eventually caught up with him. Currently out on bail and facing embezzlement charges, he may now lose his post with his duties passing to the secretary of the city council, Igor Koval, a representative of Servant of the People. No elections will be held until the war has ended.

Trukhanov’s fate may give another political heavyweight in the southeast, Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov, pause for thought. Unlike Trukhanov, Filatov has always had a reputation as a staunch Ukrainian patriot, but his relationship with the presidential team has been fraught. During the 2020 local elections, he created ProPosition, dubbed the “party of mayors,” which was seen as a serious rival for Servant of the People. The war did not put an end to the conflict, and Filatov has criticized Zelensky’s team for its “autocratic tendencies.”

In Kyiv, meanwhile, relations between the presidential administration and the city administration headed by Mayor Klitschko have also been strained since Zelensky came to power. As head of the Association of Ukrainian Cities, Klitschko sees his role as protecting the interests of local authorities, and has made no attempt to conceal his dissatisfaction with the pressure being put on mayors. He has openly supported Trukhanov, accusing the center of the systematic harassment of local government.
Within Zelensky’s entourage, Klitschko is seen as a serious political rival: his trust rating is 58 percent, fourth in the overall standings. The Kyiv mayor is rumored to be planning to resurrect his UDAR political party and could become the leader of an alliance of disgruntled regional elites and a possible ally of former president Petro Poroshenko’s opposition party, European Solidarity. The Klitschko and Poroshenko parties together have a majority in the Kyiv City Council.

As Ukrainian politics begins to come back to life, the conflict between the presidential administration and the Kyiv mayor is only likely to grow. It is safe to assume that the Kyiv mayor’s office will be targeted at the weakest point of almost any city government: various murky construction schemes, and the inevitable problems—especially during a war—with public utilities.

Overall, the process of decentralization that began under Poroshenko and initially continued under Zelensky has been fairly successful. The value of regional power grew to the extent that in the much-hyped 2020 local elections, some politicians were prepared to give up their seats in the state parliament in order to become city mayors, such as Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev, who is now being held prisoner by Russian troops.

Once the country found itself engulfed by a full-scale war, however, the system of government inevitably turned toward greater centralization and the limitation of the powers of local elected authorities in favor of hybrid military-civilian administrations appointed by the president. Experts noted, however, that the decentralization of Ukrainian power had proved to be very efficient at a time of war, making it possible to swiftly resolve defense issues on the ground without waiting for a command from the center.

For Zelensky’s administration, putting pressure on powerful mayors is part of the same strategy as deoligarchization and purging the remnants of the country’s pro-Russian political forces. It is simultaneously a fight against the negative legacy of the past, the desire to improve the country’s manageability while it is at war, and preparation for its post-war development.

In this worldview, all the parties consisting of a city’s most high-profile residents are less a product of real decentralization than of the old mafia-clan system. The government can always justify waging a war against regional grandees as part of the fight against corruption and the desire to prevent Western aid from ending up in the pockets of local clans.

As in the case of the oligarchs, however, this process also has a downside. When Russia invaded, the elected city mayors remained with their voters, while the same could not always be said of officials appointed by Zelensky. Recent purges included several governors appointed by the center whom the presidential team itself accused of inefficiency, corruption, and embezzlement of humanitarian aid. 

By getting rid of managers who may not be perfect but were elected by local residents, the government is setting a dangerous precedent, reinforcing authoritarian tendencies within a political system that is already in stasis. Once the war is over and competitive politics returns, the contradictions between the center and the regions will likely again be at the forefront of Ukrainian politics. 

  • Konstantin Skorkin