Ukraine’s blue-uniformed traffic police have a reputation for being nothing short of state-sponsored bribe takers.
Across the country’s highways, the officers stand on the side of the highway and wave their white batons to signal random motorists to pull over. From there, drivers say, a shakedown for any number of trumped up or real traffic violations typically results in the motorists emptying their wallets to “resolve” the issue.
“They don’t serve the people, they serve themselves,” says Volodymyr Kuzhekyn, a former mechanic. “Public respect for them is lower than the curb.”
That’s all about to change, as part of sweeping anti-corruption reforms to the country’s law enforcement agencies.
Ukraine is shuttering its traffic police department entirely and firing all of its officers. In its stead, the government is rolling out a new, community-oriented police force – training Mr. Kuzhekyn and some 2,000 others under Western instructors – that will break from corrupt practices of the past and drawing on techniques that the project overseer, new Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze, used to succeed in her native Georgia 10 years ago.
Ukraine is still struggling with crises on multiple fronts. Eastern Ukraine clings to a tenuous cease-fire between government forces and Russian-backed rebels, who have sought to turn the industrial east an independent “people’s republic.” Ukraine’s economy, fragile even before protests erupted in late 2013, is on the brink of collapse. The country's currency has lost about two-thirds of its value and inflation has depleted ordinary Ukrainians’ purchasing power. And the Western-leaning government in Kiev has yet to meet promises made to last year's Euromaidan protesters to weed out the crippling corruption and oligarchs' influence in politics.
The lack of anti-corruption reform weigh heavily on Ukraine. A poll conducted in March across the country’s regional capitals showed that 87 percent of Ukrainians still considered corruption a serious problem. Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization, ranked Ukraine 142 out of 175 countries in its annual corruption perception index last year, a year after the Maidan protests started.
In a country as rife with corruption as Ukraine, implementing police reforms may seem trite. But advocates of the move say it may be just what the country needs now.
On a day-to-day scale, Ukrainians are more likely to feel the brunt of corruption in small measures, such as paying a bribe to get out of a speeding ticket.
“People need to see tangible results, so these police reforms are important because they will be felt immediately,” says Olena Halushka of the nongovernmental organization Platforma Reforms in Kiev.
However, without reforming the courts and prosecutor’s offices, police reforms will only be part of the puzzle, she notes. “If the rest of the system isn’t changed, then it won’t matter. Everything is connected, and everything needs to be reformed in a complete overhaul.”
'An exercise in building public trust'
The new patrol service is scheduled to hit the streets of Kiev on July 1 with 2,000 freshly trained officers, chosen from more than 30,000 applications. And from the start, the service is designed to filter out graft: instead of paying several thousand dollars in bribes to secure a slot, applicants must pass vigorous physical exams and aptitude tests.
The old traffic police model, where officers stand on the side of the highway, will be abandoned completely. Instead, patrol units will act much like duty officers in the US, responding to community issues like with domestic violence, speeding, or street fights.
The Interior Ministry already plans to expand the initiative to Ukraine’s other large cities, including Odessa, Lviv, and Kharkiv. That is partially due to Ms. Zguladze's experience running a similar project in Georgia, soon after its Rose Revolution in 2004 ushered in a Western-leaning government intent on battling the country’s pervasive corruption.
Like police in Ukraine, those in Georgia were notorious for extracting bribes from the public to supplement their meager state salaries, says Eka Gigauri, the executive director of Transparency International in Georgia. Georgia’s reforms immediately addressed this issue by raising the salaries of the new recruits by nearly 10 times the previous amount.
“The salary change was the most successful part of the reform, because it made the police care about their jobs,” Ms. Gigauri says in a telephone interview from her office in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. “We really could see immediately that the new police were helpful and friendly, and you could feel it was a new type of service. It was an exercise in building public trust and it worked.”
Ukraine’s reforms will raise the starting salaries of the patrol officers from 2,000 Ukrainian hryvnia a month, or about $95, to 8,000 hryvnia, or $380. Whereas traffic police had to pay for their patrol car's gas and their own notebooks to write up reports, the new patrols will be issued supplies.
“When a police officer has to pay for his own gas and notebook to respond to a crime, he’s also a victim of the rotten system because he can’t survive on what they were paying him” says Anna Karayluk, a new patrol officer recruit from Kiev currently taking part in the 10-week training sessions.
“We’re all doing this because we want to see change in our country,” Ms. Karalyuk says. “We will show by our behavior that we are different from what they previously knew as police here.”