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Ukraine’s all-powerful interior minister resigns – and leaves a legacy of impunity behind

Under Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s police were implicated in tampering with investigations, violence and unprofessional conduct

Tetiana Bezruk
16 July 2021, 7.01am
(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

“The honour is mine!” This is how Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, signed his letter of resignation earlier this week. But honour is hardly the word that many in Ukrainian society would use to describe Avakov’s seven-year tenure since 2014.

Avakov, a former governor of the Kharkiv region, came to power in the wake of the country’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution – and the brutal shooting of more than 100 protesters in downtown Kyiv. Even prior to that mass shooting, police violence – and the impunity that officers enjoyed – had become a sad factor in Ukraine’s public life.

With public confidence severely rocked by the shooting, Avakov had carte blanche to reform Ukraine’s police. Instead, he used the interior ministry as his own base of political power, surviving two presidents and frequent calls to resign. Rather than a reformed police force, Avakov’s legacy appears to consist mostly of a culture of impunity for the Ukrainian police, who have been implicated in tampering with investigations, violence and unprofessional conduct through a series of high-profile and tragic cases.

Whether it is the wave of violence against civic activists or the everyday stories of police carelessness and violence, it appears that Ukraine’s much-vaunted police reform has left much to be desired.

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Police stand during protest against overzealous policing in downtown Kyiv
(c) Taras Khimchak / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

“The reform began in some form in 2015 with the launch of a new patrol police force. Then everything came to naught,” notes Denys Kobzin, a former police officer who is now director of the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research.

“The loudly announced projects of lustration, community policing, custody records, public evaluation of efficiency and others – everything froze for years in the form of ‘experiments’ and did not receive a broad pick-up, did not change the system of relations either within the police system or with the people.”

Yevhen Krapivin, an expert at the Center of Policy and Legal Reform NGO, says that the reforms that were carried through, including the patrol police, were not advanced by Avakov, but outside reformers - Georgian officials Khatia Dekanoidze and Eka Sguladze. “Do we need more police reform? Yes, and Avakov’s resignation is a chance for this reform,” Krapivin says. “It was clear in 2017-2018 that Avakov didn’t want to do anything, and that he was trying to preserve the existing system.”

For Kobzin, Ukraine’s patrol police is at least one small result of the police reform – this new separate police unit has, in his eyes, in some way changed the relationship between Ukrainian citizens and the police. But he believes that the remaining parts of the police system have stayed the same.

"The number of people who do not trust the police is greater year on year than those who do trust them"

“Corruption, violence, manipulation of statistics, covering up crimes by people in uniform – there have been no radical changes in the system and this is reflected in the trust of the population in the police. The number of people who do not trust the police is greater year on year than those who do trust them,” he says.

Indeed, in recent years, it has emerged that several high-profile criminal investigations in Ukraine have been particularly problematic.

In late May 2019, for example, a five-year-old boy, Kyrylo Tlyavov, was playing on the street outside his home when he was struck in the head by a bullet – nearby, several off-duty police officers, investigators believe, had been firing at tin cans. Tlyavov died three days later. The officers in question, Volodymyr Petrovets and Ivan Prikhodko, were charged with murder, but the firearm was never found. This case in Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky, a town to the south-east of Kyiv, continues.

The investigation into the murder of civic activist Kateryna Handziuk, who was also an adviser to the mayor of the city of Kherson, is also yet to find justice for her family and friends. Handziuk died four months after an assailant poured a litre of sulphuric acid over her outside her home in 2018. Initially, Avakov announced that police had detained a suspect – though it later turned out that police officers had proposed he sign a false statement about his whereabouts on the day of the murder. The investigation later led to local political circles. Today, one of the three people that Handziuk named as behind the attack her are under investigation.

CCTV shot of the man who attacked Kateryna Handziuk
Source: Kherson regional police

Then, in 2020, a horrendous story of torture and rape emerged in Kyiv region, where two police officers in the town of Kaharlyk were arrested on suspicion of raping a young woman and torturing a man in May that year. The police force released the two police officers from service, and then disbanded the town’s police unit and sent all its staff for requalification. Investigators later stated that the police officers had tortured local residents, forcing them to confess to minor crimes. The case is now being heard in a closed Kyiv court.

After the Kaharlyk case, Avakov’s deputy Anton Herashchenko said that the interior minister would not resign - before Avakov’s appointment, these kinds of incidents were simply swept under the rug, he said. But while Herashchenko claimed that the ministry was building a new police force that reacted to acts of violence by their own officers, in the aftermath yet more stories of police violence emerged across the country.

There seems to be little hope that Avakov’s likely replacement as interior minister, Denys Monastyrskyi, an MP with the ruling Servant of the People party, will make significant changes. Monastyrskyi previously headed a Ukrainian parliamentary committee on law enforcement, and also worked for a thinktank set up by Anton Herashchenko, Avakov’s deputy, leading to suspicions that Monastyrksyi supports the now former interior minister.

The desire for an honest police force - one that citizens are not afraid of - remains today in Ukraine

“The fact that Monastyrskyi was affiliated with Avakov was clear given the quality of legislation that his committee examined. But that doesn’t mean that he will always support Avakov,” Kobzin says. “Soon, Monastyrskyi will become head of a huge institution, with colossal channels of money and information. He’s going to have a lot of power, will know a lot more, and will be indebted to many – and many will be indebted to him. He’ll leave the Avakov group in a few months’ time.”

“Avakov changed the system by concentrating more resources in his own hands,” says Kobzin. “On the one hand, this made the system more manageable, which is good for emergency situations or, for example, reform – if you want to reform. But on the other, it has given the interior minister huge power, practically comparable to that of the president.”

While Avakov’s resignation is a reminder of the need for institutional change in Ukraine, the country’s interior minister is too big an institution for one person to make every decision. Among the Ukrainian police’s special forces, officers still do not report violations by their colleagues, and although the Soviet system of fulfilling arrest numbers has supposedly been done away with, it remains unofficially in force. While some officers have served honestly, it must be said, there still remain officers who require further training - or who should be fired.

The desire for an honest police force - one that citizens are not afraid of - remains today in Ukraine.

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