Next revolutionary step in Ukraine: Reform the police

The Yanukovych downfall presents an opportunity to rebuild the nation's security forces. But what replaces the feared and loathed Berkut riot police?

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
A woman kneeled in front of Ukranian riot police unit "Berkut" as they stood by during rallies by anti and pro-Yanukovych supporters in the eastern city of Donetsk, on Feb. 23, 2014. The Berkut riot police unit has since been disbanded, but what replaces it remains an open question.

The decision by Ukraine’s interim government to disband the hated riot police marks the first step in an urgent program of security-service reform needed to stabilize the country.

Yet how to reform and reconstitute Ukraine's security forces, some of whom used live ammunition on Kiev protesters and often behaved like hardcore militia groups in parts of the country, presents a challenge.

Not only is a reform of police expected to introduce new ideas of democratic controls, transparency, and community involvement. But reforms must address very different mind-sets in eastern Russian-speaking and western Ukrainian-speaking regions, and deal with quasi-vigilante groups such as “Right Sector,” a Ukrainian nationalist force that has become emboldened by the uprisings of recent weeks.

Ukraine’s own security service, as well, remained largely unreformed since its Soviet KGB days.

Last week, the special riot police, known in Ukraine as "Berkut," left their encampment at Mariinsky Park in downtown Kiev almost immediately after the Yanukovych government collapsed. The Berkut were feared and hated for their brutality and for working with snipers, and they left behind field kitchens, tents, and two massive Russian-made Kamaz water cannons.

"The Berkut troops disappeared in less than 20 minutes," says opposition parliament member Volodymyr Ariev. "It was the first time in my life I have seen a city without police."

Transitional authorities say they now want security forces more accountable to elected officials. Some argue the a reformed police can partly draw from the Kiev opposition that formed their own self-defense units to protect the protesters at Independence Square, also known as the Maidan.

Andriy Dubovyk, a retired Soviet-era officer with the elite special force Alpha who acted as a senior commander of the Maidan self-defense force that faced off against the Berkut, advocates the creation of “a municipal police force that operates under sheriffs elected by the local community, which can easily be changed.”

"There is also a need to legitimize arrangements for citizens,” Mr. Dubovyk says, “such as those from self-defense units who have already distinguished themselves.… They need knowledge of the law and special training."

After a revolutionary upheaval and massive violations of human rights by outgoing President Victor Yanukovych, what's needed is a reform of the entire government, says Andriy Kozlov, a lawyer in a new citizen’s group called “Civic Sector.” 

"We must incorporate some people from the protest camps into the new power structures, not just the same old faces," he said.

Yet co-opting members of self-defense units may be neither easy nor practical, says security expert Mark Galeotti of New York's Center for Global Affairs. He argues that most self-defense units will “melt away” in the coming months as the men return to their families and the luster of the international moment fades.

"Shorn of the heroism of defending Maidan, the reality of policing is about picking up drunks at 1:30 in the morning,” says Mr. Galeotti, who is on a teaching sabbatical at Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “That's not what these guys signed up for. We shall see pressure for a shift to civil involvement, but most of these self-defense units will drop away."

More pressing for Ukraine's new leaders was the need to resurrect some kind of Berkut unit, albeit one that does not re-admit the uglier elements of the old organization, Galeotti argues.

"There is going to be a continuing public order issue for the Ukrainian police," he adds. "Even once the current political crisis is solved, there remains an issue in the country with extremely violent football hooligans."

The choice is between using less trained police from the Interior Ministry, or trying to cull through Berkut's old ranks to leave as few disagreeable characters as possible.

How to treat the Right Sector is another question. During the protests, the right-wing group emerged to protect the protesters, and they have stayed on to throw their weight around and are reportedly standing off against ordinary police in and around Kiev. Right Sector members are not expected to easily give up their guns and the popular authority they earned in the fight at the Maidan.

Galleotti says the capability of Ukraine to develop a new intelligence force may be the most important long-term project of reform.

"It's likely that Ukraine will need some kind of security service – not least to stop the Russians having a field day – but there is a clear challenge to reshaping the 'spooky' side of affairs," he says. "If they are allowed, the [security bureau] has the power to be quite a corrosive factor in Ukraine."

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