By Yuliya Panfil, Jon Unruh and Michael Cholod
Seven months have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, displacing more than 13 million people—one-third of the country’s population—and leveling entire towns.
And yet, despite all odds, Ukraine is turning the tide against its more powerful neighbor. Ukrainian forces have staged a rapid counter-offensive, liberating thousands of square miles of territory that displaced Ukrainians are beginning to return to.
Now, the Ukrainian government faces the monumental task of getting millions of returnees back into their homes or compensating them for homes that have been shelled into rubble. More than 1 million families have already reported to the government that their homes have been damaged or destroyed, and that number will surely balloon in the coming months.
Getting war survivors back into their homes—otherwise known as property restitution—is a daunting process. When refugees return, they often can’t prove they are the rightful occupants of the homes they left behind because their property records are missing, destroyed, or inaccurate. Indeed, Ukraine’s property registry is only 40 percent complete, meaning that more than half of Ukrainians are unlikely to have formal records of their property rights. Sometimes, the homes themselves have been destroyed or occupied by new families—the latter a disturbing reality in Eastern Ukraine, particularly now that Putin has staged sham annexations of occupied Ukrainian territories.
The result is that mass dislocations can last decades and even generations. In the meantime, homes can change hands several times and become legally held by others, including political elites or opposed ethnic, sectarian, or religious groups. Meanwhile, the grievances of displaced families build, sometimes erupting into political or insurgent movements.
And yet, despite the unprecedented devastation it faces, Ukraine has the potential to transform this tortuous postwar return process. With its digital sophistication, smartphone penetration, and a government willing to innovate, Ukraine might become the first postwar country in which millions of displaced citizens can return to existing homes quickly and be compensated promptly and fairly for homes and other property destroyed in the war.
But first, it has to change the draft compensation law it is currently considering. The proposal would decide compensation cases one by one, which would be a logistical nightmare. Instead, Ukraine should embrace a mass claims process, where large numbers of cases are grouped into categories and decided together. This isn’t entirely revolutionary; Iran, Germany, the U.S. Ethiopia, Argentina, South Africa, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have all successfully implemented mass claims.
Ukraine’s draft compensation law is also silent about the types of evidence allowed, and with more than half the country likely lacking formal property titles it's easy to imagine massive amounts of legitimate claims being rejected. Ukrainians who don’t have a title or other formal property document must be allowed to use other forms of evidence to prove where they live.
Using nontraditional evidence for property restitution isn’t new. After all, it's hardly fair to expect someone who is fleeing to pack a title deed in their go bag, and governments and humanitarian agencies must be pragmatic about letting survivors reclaim their homes. In fact, the U.N.’s “Pinheiro Principles” allow countries to accept a wide range of evidence regarding property ownership after a war.
In the past, war survivors have used things like electricity and water bills—called parol evidence—to corroborate their property claims. Now, we create such evidence constantly, just by virtue of living in the digital age. As our social and economic lives move online, we generate massive amounts of data—things like Google maps location histories, e-commerce and rideshare receipts, digital utilities payments, and photos on Instagram—that can be used to help prove where we live. And in Ukraine, where two-thirds of the population owns a smartphone, these records are available at survivors’ fingertips.
Having proof you’re the owner of a home is one thing, but compiling and submitting that evidence simply and securely is another, and technology can help. Ukrainians need a digital platform that allows them to file compensation claims without requiring them to create an account that could be used to target them, if their smartphone or computer fell into the wrong hands. All data should be encrypted and transit through the Tor network, so every claimant remains anonymous and untraceable except to the end recipient of the claim. And claimants should be able to back up their identity and residency claims using any evidence they have available, from audio testimonials to utility bills, ridesharing history, and, where appropriate, photos of damage to their homes.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation has taken a critical step by reconfiguring its Diia digital services platform to allow citizens to submit property damage claims; already more than 240,000 have been submitted. Diia could be improved to ingest a wide range of proofs of property occupancy, and encrypted so that claimants remain anonymous and untraceable to anyone other than the recipient of the claim. Alternatively, a new app could ingest this evidence and feed it into Diia.
And finally, Ukraine must devise a corruption-proof way of paying for all of this, ideally using money from seized Russian assets. One option would be to take a cue from the German Marshall Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and stand up a Ukraine Bank for Reconstruction and Development. A UBRD would act as an independent entity whose sole purpose is to finance the rebuilding and repair of civilian homes and public infrastructure, using money from seized Russian assets or from Western donors. An independent UBRD would assure Ukrainianss that the government is focussed on rebuilding and restitution, while convincing the West that Ukraine is serious about tackling the potential for corruption and misuse of funds.
To further head off the possibility of corruption, the UBRD could issue a shadow digital currency—let’s call it a Rebuild Hryvnia. (The Hryvnia is Ukraine’s currency.) Claimants could use the Rebuild Hryvnia to pay for repairs and re-building. In return for being able to exchange digital Rebuild Hryvnia for “real” fiat Hryvnia, contractors and suppliers would be held accountable to an auditable process. A digital ReBuild Hryvnia could even pay interest to claimants while awaiting repairs and rebuilding and ensure that the value-added tax is automatically paid upon redemption by eligible vendors.
Despite the obstacles it faces, Ukraine has all the tools to get this right: a highly educated and technically sophisticated population, an advanced digital infrastructure, and a government that is ready to move quickly and willing to listen to new ideas.
With a bit of planning and imagination, Ukraine might become a model for rapid and transparent post-war reconstruction.