Ukraine’s Public Enemy Number One: The Police

Why Ukraine's brutal riot police are one of the biggest obstacles on the path to reform.


It’s been two months since the start of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests, and things are only getting worse. Over the past week, Ukraine has witnessed some of the worst violence it’s seen since gaining independence in 1991. In response to the passage of a series of laws limiting civic freedoms, protesters rallied with renewed fervor in Kiev’s central square to continue a conflict that has spiraled into violence some commentators are calling "medieval." Hundreds have been injured, and at least four have been killed.

Ukraine’s special riot police unit, known as Berkut ("golden eagle" in Ukrainian), has played a prominent role in violence against demonstrators. Over the past two months, President Viktor Yanukovych has scaled up Berkut’s protest management tactics, ordering the unit to disperse the crowds using water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. After Berkut’s initial efforts to disperse the protests proved futile, the government resorted to more extreme methods to intimidate the crowd. On Jan. 23, according to protesters, the police opened fire against the crowds for the first time since Euromaidan began two months ago.

This week, the controversy surrounding the group intensified with the release of evidence directly implicating Berkut in abuse. A Ukrainian photographer released images that, he said, documented his wounds after a severe beating at the hands of Berkut officers.  A video has also emerged that shows Berkut officers manhandling a young male protester in their custody. The man, who has been stripped naked, stands in the snow while police slap him around.

Despite Ukrainians’ growing political awareness and blossoming civil society, Berkut remains one of the least reformed public institutions. If Ukraine is to embark on the path to greater democratization, its political leadership must make police reform a top priority. The police must learn how to protect Ukraine’s increasingly diverse populace as they engage in new types of political dissent. A democratically reformed police with strong public oversight can safeguard political processes, including mass protests, and usher Ukraine into a peaceful future. The police forces, including Berkut, must be accountable to citizens and subject to the rule of law — not to the political regime.

While other security and law enforcement agencies have undergone reform in the years since the Orange revolution, Ukraine’s police remain largely unchanged. That makes for a stark contrast with some of Ukraine’s closest neighbors, such as Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic states, where police forces have experienced substantial change. In Ukraine, in fact, all of the notorious elements of the Soviet police remain intact: the traffic police, the militarized wing of the police, and local law-enforcement units that work on the community level. The police remain punitive and corrupt. Instead of serving the citizenry to prevent crime, the Ukrainian police use force to advance their own material interests, routinely employing torture tactics to force confessions. The police are just one part of an elaborate mechanism within the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), the main government department responsible for internal security, that works to extract bribes from the populace. Top officials also benefit from this blatant corruption, and are also able to collect taxes imposed on their personnel’s salaries. Other countries in the region have established public oversight over the police’s work and have engaged civil society groups in designing police reform programs with public safety in mind. Ukraine has yet to undertake such a process.

Critics of President Yanukovych have justifiably accused his administration of allowing corruption to flourish. They accuse him of disregarding democratic institutions and leading the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction.

The 5,000-man-strong Berkut division is the best-trained riot police unit in the former Soviet states. Though it is officially responsible for public safety, fighting organized crime, and escorting prisoners, Berkut has won a reputation as a deeply politicized body that is accustomed to protecting the political regime. Its loyalty to the ruling regime grew even deeper after Yanukovych appointed Vitaly Zakharchenko, a close ally and former police officer, to head the MIA. Since Zakharchenko’s appointment, matters have gone from bad to worse. Although the Ukrainian police have always been closely tied to its political masters, it has never before used firearms against civilian protesters. (Bizarrely, it is precisely the group’s brutal reputation that makes it popular among pro-Putin Russians, who see the protesters in Kiev as lackeys of the West. "Bandits on one side, fascists on the other. Hold on, Berkut!" tweeted Konstantin Rykov, a famous Kremlin online apologist.)

Today’s Ukrainian police are brutal and unresponsive not least because they are estranged from the population they are supposed to serve. Police chiefs rarely come from the communities in which they work, making them detached and uninterested in the needs of the people in their districts. In some parts of the country the police resemble a mafia-style organization that intimidates local populations with impunity. Just last June, two policemen kidnapped a 29-year-old woman in Vradiyevka and drove her into the woods of a surrounding town, where they brutally beat her, fracturing her skull, and took turns raping her. This heinous act sparked rage in the community not just because of its brutality, but also because the resident police department refused to take action against the officers responsible.

In the past decade, Ukraine has made several attempts to reform the police — but none of these attempts responded to the public’s needs, partly because no effort was made to incorporate any views from domestic or international experts. While serving as ministers of internal affairs under former president Viktor Yushchenko, Vasyl Tsushko and Yuriy Lutsenko (now a leading member of the opposition), undertook several initiatives to establish external oversight that led to positive changes in the behavior of police personnel. Lutsenko assigned human rights experts to monitor senior MIA officials and dispatched special mobile public oversight groups to assess MIA facilities across the country. This led to a significant drop in cases of police torture. 

But though these reforms won praise from civil society groups and the international community, they were abruptly halted after Yanukovych came to power in 2010. Working with his close ally, Vitaly Zakharchenko, Yanukovych purged all human rights ombudsmen from the ranks of the MIA. The new president used the ministry to protect his government rather than the civil liberties of protesters on the streets of Kiev. By siding with the regime, the MIA could continue to benefit from corruption and count on further political patronage from the man at the top.

But as the Euromaidan protests continue, it’s clear that the public is becoming increasingly impatient to see genuine police reform. The latest police actions only seem to have galvanized the protesters. (In the photo above, a woman hits a Berkut officer with a cross as he attempts to detain a protester during clashes on Jan. 22.) Demonstrators responded to last week’s violence with violence, hurling Molotov cocktails, bricks, and other projectiles at riot police. (According to the government, 195 police officers have sustained injuries in the standoff with protesters.) When activist Tetiana Chornovol was assaulted by police last month, she became a symbol of the lawlessness and authoritarianism in Yanukovych’s Ukraine. And when police attacked Lutsenko earlier this month, the news prompted protesters to rally once again. Now Kiev’s protesters are unanimous in their calls for police reform. Reforming Berkut will likely become a central political issue once the Euromaidan crisis is over.

Civil society groups — including legal research and policy institutions, human rights groups, volunteer organizations that monitor the traffic police, and individual activists who have fallen victim to police brutality — have already developed a number of initiatives to transform the forces. The Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors, for instance, works to educate citizens about their rights, teaching them how to respond to and report police abuse. The association also investigates and publicizes areas where police abuses are particularly widespread, and keeps track of which people are the most likely to be maltreated by the police. Other groups, such as the Center for Political and Legal Reforms, focus on the law, providing advice on the legislative process to government officials and lawmakers, including background research on prospective bills and reviews of existing legislation. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights regularly addresses law-enforcement issues, often in collaboration with experts and humanitarian groups. Individual activists are also using their experiences with police abuse to develop recommendations on incremental changes that might reduce the frequency of brutality.

Today, the loudest calls for reform are coming from the Euromaidan. Protesters are united in their efforts to hold state power in check, and are on their way to making police reform Ukraine’s number one issue. A reformed police — accountable to the public, not the regime — will safeguard Ukraine’s path toward greater democratization.

Erica Marat is an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Affairs. Twitter: @EricaMarat

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