Where is Ukraine’s new police force?

Two years ago, the Ukrainian government decided to create a new national police force. But aside from the name, not much has changed. RU

Tetiana Goncharuk
31 January 2018

Photo: Bogdan Genbach / Flickr. All rights reserved.The huge investment, both financial and human, poured into reforming Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies has been less of a reform than a PR campaign – a calling card for global consumption, designed to persuade donors (ICITAP, EUAM, the US and Canadian embassies) that real change is taking place. Uniforms were paid for by the US, police cars funded by Japan. Numerous training events were conducted by foreign experts, with training manuals and trips abroad for Ukrainian police management.

According to official Ministry figures, 92.3% of militia staff went through re-assessment and stayed in their jobs, but now as part of the new police body. As for the 7.7% who were fired, they were reinstated by the courts, and received €1,676,681 in compensation for their forced absence from work.

Where is Ukraine’s new police force and why has the reform been so ineffective?

Police vs. militia

It took the tragic events of the 2013-2014 Maidan protests to make people realise that real change was needed in Ukraine’s law enforcement sector. The militia, who should have been defending the country’s citizens, instead obeyed orders from the criminalised authorities, using violence and firearms to disperse peaceful demonstrations. In the regions, the militia and courts were used to hound and intimidate civil activists who were supporting Maidan in their own small towns.

After Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power in February 2014 and fled to Russia, Arsen Avakov, a Kharkiv politician, was appointed Acting Minister of Internal Affairs. One of Avakov’s first moves was to create a Public Council, which was charged with drawing up a plan for national reforms. Up until then, independent Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies had spent all 24 years of their existence following rules and regulations laid down in the Soviet period, and Ukraine’s “Law on the Militia”, a calque of the corresponding Soviet law, was still in force. Real reform was not in the interests of the country’s ruling circles, as the militia was useful for covering up their criminal activities and ubiquitous corruption.

“Since 2014, the repressive potential has grown – we are now observing a process of additional centralisation”

According to Denys Kobzyn, director of the Kharkiv Institute of Social Research, Ukraine’s post-Soviet police force became a corrupt and bureaucratic institution – a huge machine designed to collect money, work “according to quotas” and with the potential for repressive action. The militia was highly integrated into the power vertical of Ukraine’s executive branch, extremely centralised and closed off from society. “Moreover, since 2014, the repressive potential has grown – we are now observing a process of additional centralisation, when the migration service, militia, emergency services and border guard have all been concentrated inside the Interior Ministry.”

Maidan revealed that change was unavoidable: the Ukrainian public was no longer prepared to put up with humiliation from the authorities, and wanted to live in a country governed by the rule of law. The reform of the police officially began in November 2015, when a new “National Police Service” law came into force. President Petro Poroshenko called in a team of Georgian reformers: Eka Zguladze, who put the police out on patrol, and Khatia Dekanoidze, who later headed the new national police service.

The start of Ukraine’s police reform was highly promising. The Georgians began with reform of the patrol police, and announced a recruitment drive. They appointed new people with a different, “un-Soviet” mindset, whom they selected and trained carefully. The new cops in their stylish uniforms and modern cars appeared first on the streets of Kyiv and then spread to Lviv, Odessa and other cities. The name also changed, from “militia” to “police”, and with this came promises to preserve public order and the safety of ordinary Ukrainians. The presence on the streets of new police cars gave people a feeling of security, but not for long.

Safety in numbers

The recruitment of new police officers went hand in hand with the re-training of existing staff, in order to select militia officers capable of transferring to the new force.

This, at any rate, was new police chief Khatia Dekanoidze’s plan. But the re-assessment and retraining didn’t go to plan. The law allowed three calendar months for the process, but in fact it dragged on for over a year. Police chiefs also dragged their feet on reporting the project’s results. In the end, only 7.7% of existing police officers (5,000 out of 70,000) lost their jobs, and they all appealed against their dismissal and were reinstated by the courts. The reinstatements were also automatic. According to Yevhen Krapivin, from the Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors on Law Enforcement (UMDPL), the courts took no account of officers’ work records or any history of corruption: this was all irrelevant because the legislation that initiated the reform was written in such a way as to give the court no choice but to reinstate them.


Police patrol car in Kyiv. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0: Nushtaev Dmitriy / Wiki. Some rights reserved.Another reason for the reform’s ineffectiveness is the fact that interior minister Arsen Avakov has created a certain monopoly on power. The National Police Law states that power is divided between the Minister for the Interior and the Chief of Police: the minister is, theoretically, only responsible for directing government policy on law enforcement, while the National Police chief actually runs the police force. “This is the European model, which was supposed to reduce ministerial influence on police operations management,” says Krapivin. However both Khatia Dekanoidze, who was fired in the middle of last year, and new police chief Serhiy Knyazev, who took up his post in February 2017, are mere figureheads with no real influence on decision-making, which is securely in Avakov’s hands.

Legal specialists say that the reform was implemented by working around the law and governance mechanisms from the very start. Few people realise that police reform could have happened very differently. A completely different draft bill on the issue, proposed by civil society campaigners (both UMPDL and the Centre for Political and Legal Reforms were involved in its development) was the first to be presented to the Ukrainian parliament. The bill was given a name: “On the Police and Police Work”; it was presented and registered in Parliament, but it wasn’t debated by MPs. This was a deliberate omission: the politicians were awaiting another draft bill whose authors were the Georgian team headed by Eka Zguladze. The Georgian bill was put together in secret and wasn’t presented for public discussion, as the law and other regulations demand. The public were only allowed access to the “National Police” bill when it was published on the Ministry’s website. The civil society campaigners’ bill didn’t have a chance.


Eka Zguladze. Photo CC BY-SA 4.0: Wiki. Some rights reserved.According to Vadim Pivovarov, one of the authors of the “alternative” bill, the bills differed in their very conception. The government-sponsored project headed by the Georgians retained the idea of the police as a militarised body with an ill-defined structure and powers. The “civil team” proposed to create a service provider that would comply with every European document relating to police work and have a clearly defined structure and powers.

This incompatibility was noted by the Council of Europe, which produced a list of 29 observations on the Georgians’ National Police bill. These observations that have still not been taken into account, says Oleksandr Banchuk, a specialist at the Centre for Political and Legal Reforms and the Reanimation Package of Reforms public initiative. According to Banchuk , the main issues identified by the Council of Europe were the excessive influence on the police by the Minister of Internal Affairs, an assumption of police right to infringe property rights and the ability of police officers to take measures such as searches of property and vehicles, interrogation of individuals and checking of ID papers with no good reason. The demands made by the public and police, as well as those of the Council of Europe, were ignored by both the Georgian team and the Ukrainian government.

The lack of any real reform also serves the personal interests of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. According to the law, the head of the National Police appoints his own deputies, and has these decisions approved by the Interior Minister, which gives the latter an opportunity to push through his own candidates. This is what happened with Khatia Dekanoidze, who did not agree to the appointment of Vadym Troyan (a former commander in Azov battalion and member of the Patriot of Ukraine neo-Nazi group) as her deputy on Avakov’s request. Avakov is also responsible for appointing regional police chiefs across Ukraine, and puts forward the police budget, which has impacted the reform of beat officers, leaving the old system in place.

The police still fail to react to everyday crimes, and people are used to being told “When they murder you, give us a ring!”

Avakov also uses the police to promote the aims of his political party, the People’s Front, as well as solving the situation with his son, who has been caught up in a corruption scandal involving the purchase of rucksacks for Ukrainian soldiers. When Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) decided in October 2017 to search Oleksandr Avakov’s flat, the minister attempted to stop them by sending police officers to surround the building and evacuate everyone on the pretext of a bomb threat. Afterwards, not only Avakov but the interior ministry announced that the NABU investigation of his son was politically motivated – the minister’s personal position adopted by an entire governmental department.

The experts are united in believing that Ukraine’s police reform can’t be considered complete until it has included the criminal police and investigative bodies. Otherwise there can be no effective investigation of crimes, however minor, such as thefts of phones and clothing from cars, which are hardly ever solved in Ukraine.

The police still fail to react to everyday crimes, and people are used to being told “When they murder you, give us a ring!” The war in the east, socio-economic problems and the illegal trafficking of arms from the conflict zone all contribute to an increase in street gangs and the involvement of force during thefts. Police chief Serhiy Knyazev has, in fact, announced a reform of criminal police units, but has given no details about how this might take place: he has no clear action plan and no staff capable of carrying one out. It looks as though the Ukrainian government has no motivation for real reform, and is more interested in continuing to rob its citizens blind using “legal means”.

Real changes would mean the collapse of numerous corruption schemes and would bring an end to the abuse of power, including that wielded by the Minister for Internal Affairs and other officials. Values such as the rule of law, for which many Ukrainians fought for on Maidan, are becoming increasingly meaningless. The war between Ukraine’s “Soviet” and “European” faces continues.


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