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Ukraine disbands feared riot police unit that led crackdown on Kiev protesters

More than 80 people died in clashes that precipitated a change of government in Kiev, and the acting interior minister says the 'Golden Eagles' riot police must go.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
Members of Berkut anti-riot unit embark in a bus as leave their barracks in Kiev in this photo taken on Feb. 22.

Ukraine’s acting government took another decisive step today – disbanding the country’s elite Berkut riot police that were blamed for scores of protesters' deaths – as it attempts to navigate the country out of its political crisis and fend off anger from Ukraine’s Russian-leaning east.

“Berkut is gone,” acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday morning. Mr. Avakov wrote that he had signed a special order to abolish the units, which have been an elite force in Ukraine since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The units' name, Berkut, translates as "golden eagle." 

The riot police were blamed for firing on protesters during the height of clashes last week, when more than 80 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

The group had come under increasing anger in recent weeks, as former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the capital this weekend and was subsequently impeached, ratcheted up the police force’s tactics, Foreign Policy magazine reported last month. 

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.

The Berkut was a successor to the OMON riot police created by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988. The group’s function was to tackle organized crime, police large events such as concerts, and to ensure public order. It was originally intended to “forestall the use of the VV [Internal Troops] who had a propensity to use firearms to quell disorder,” according to Ukrainian academic Taras Kuzio, who wrote in an article for the Journal of Slavic Military Studies.

According to Foreign Policy, in recent years the group won a reputation as a deeply politicized body: 

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.

The move to disband the Berkut has repercussions beyond Kiev, where they incurred the wrath of protesters. The act “is likely to inflame tensions in Russian-speaking Crimea, which lost more than half a dozen of its policemen in the fighting in the capital last week and is already wary of the new regime in Kiev,” wrote the Financial Times.

The Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent in Ukraine reported yesterday of the anti-Kiev sentiment in eastern Ukraine:

Fears of a national split are now focused on Sevastopol and the Crimean Peninsula, who many worry could ask the Kremlin to protect its mostly ethnic Russian population from the nationalistic “fascists” running the country from Kiev – i.e. the anti-government protesters who had been demonstrating for three months on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan.

“This is a Russian city and always has been,” says Vitaly Rodyonkov, a taxi driver in Sevastopol. “I don’t understand these people on Maidan. Who are they to tell me what my government should do? We don’t need these people. We are Russians, plain and simple.”

Cities in eastern Ukraine like Sevastopol are “not without its supporters of a more Westward-oriented Ukraine,” The Monitor’s Sabra Ayres wrote. “But, pro-Maidan activists like Viktor Neganov say they are facing an uphill battle. 

On Sunday, a bus load of government riot police returning home from Kiev were received as heroes. The police unit, known as the Berkut, has been accused of shooting live rounds that killed as many 80 people on Thursday in Kiev.

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