Despite Ambitions, Ukrainian Police Reform Struggles
13 November, 2017

In 2015, Ukraine established a new National Police force to replace the country’s old, corrupt Soviet-style “Militia.” The move was part of the country’s reform efforts after the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution.

Today, however, reformers are calling into the question the progress and efficacy of the law enforcement reform.

After Ukrainian security forces fired upon protesters on the Maidan, killing around a hundred people, the new government of President Petro Poroshenko held the Berkut special police force largely responsible. As a result, the government initiated an overhaul of the Ukrainian law enforcement that replace the old police force and dissolve the Berkut entirely.

But according to Denys Kobzin, director of the Kharkiv Institute of Social Research, Ukraine’s police reform has achieved only limited success. “The reform in the way it should be done has not started,” he tells Hromadske.

Kobzin claims that police reform should have begun with an independent and transparent audit process to calculate a reasonable budget for the police sector at the parliamentary level. “I only heard about the audit that is being carried out in [the Lviv region],” he says. “And the police [there] have undergone a reform and achieved the most success.”

That said, Kobzin also underscores that, like members of the new patrol police, officers in the former Militsiya started their careers aiming “to serve and protect.” But many were no match for ongoing systemic corruption.

Those problems continue today, affecting the new police. “Those who do not want to bend to the system quit,” he explains.

“The police officers and especially their leadership virtually live in a different world, a world of commands from the top, different operations, shady schemes, and corruption,” Kobzin tells Hromadske, “[This world] is very different from the values they claim to have and from the problems of ordinary people.”

To close the gap, Kobzin calls for decentralization in Ukraine’s law enforcement and the establishment of an independent system for collecting and analyzing complaints against the police. This, he claims, would push the reform process forward and help bring Ukraine’s law enforcement in line with global standards.

To discuss the challenges facing Ukrainian police reform, Hromadske spoke with Denys Kobzin, Director of the Kharkhiv Institute of Social Research.

Denys, speaking in general terms, can we consider the police reform successful? We, of course, would have to talk about the patrol police and the rest separately. But can we already make some verdicts?

From what I see, the reform in the way it should be done has not started. We’re still waiting, and not just the ordinary Ukrainians but our partners in the European Union [too]. But this requires some serious willpower and going to very dangerous places, especially for the Interior Ministry.

What needs doing? If you’ve been following this, what do we need to pay attention to?

Every job has to start with some serious independent audit process. The resources need to be calculated, how they’re being used and how reasonable is the budget attributed by the parliament to the police sector, how willing the parliament is to cooperate. That would help us understand where the system is failing us and where it might be about to fail us. The results of this audit process need to be known to Ukraine’s taxpayers, maybe not in full but for most of it.

Has there not been such an audit?

Not to my knowledge. I only heard about the audit that is being carried out in [the Lviv region], that’s the only one. And the police [there] has undergone a reform and achieved the most success.

Today’s Ukrainian society exists in two extremes: betrayal and victory. There are some people in the patrol police who are not satisfied. But we know for sure that there are also people who are trying to do something, to change the system from within. Is it possible to make a judgment of whether the reform is heading in the right direction?

In defense of the old Ukrainian Militia, it has been overly demonized when the new police was being implemented. The officers of this new patrol police went through the same path as any police or militia recruit before them. 90% of them arrive with gleaming eyes, most of them do not want to abuse [their power] or partake in corruption schemes, they just want to serve and protect. But the system changed them. It’s the same for the officers of the new patrol police. Those who do not want to bend to the system quit.

Does anyone stay and fight [the system]?

Some stay. But I did not witness any strong fighting. There was one case when some female patrol police officers in Kramatorsk fought for their rights when their boss discriminated against them. But the system itself did not change; they’ve put new faces instead of the old ones. But these people are now struggling because throughout the two years the reform has been in action they have been facing some same old problems.

What happens after the audit process?

The decentralization of the system needs to take place. The system is very centralized and is de-facto governed by a small group of people. People practically serve their bosses instead of serving the society, whom they should be serving.

If the head of the police is from Kyiv, he will be looking to fulfill the expectations of his Kyiv-based leadership. He will pick some deputies who will look up to him. The deputies will then pick their leaders. And that’s how the pyramid is built where everyone has their eyes set on the [Ukrainian] capital, while they should actually be looking at ordinary citizens living [all over Ukraine].  

I once talked to a lawyer, an ideologist of the police reform that took place in Georgia during prime minister Zurab Zhvania’s life, so after the Rose Revolution in 2003. He studied the Western experience and started it [in the same way.] The idea was to have a show-off, demonstrative kind of reform of the patrol police that would be approved by the nation, therefore earn some trust credit. After obtaining this trust credit, you can put pressure on the most sensitive topic – the rest of the Interior Ministry where things are much trickier. But he complained that they never got to stage B, the most important stage. What can you say about the decorative element of changes [in Ukraine]?

Yes, there was such a decorative element. Of course, everyone was in euphoria: beautiful cars, beautiful young people, there was a lot of information about how objectively they acted. But it wasn’t used to the fullest extent in order to change the rest. A lot of time has been wasted, and we didn’t address the key moments.

Ok, so the audit process, then decentralization, then what?

Creating an independent system of collection and analysis of complaints about the police’s actions would be an important change in compliance with the global standards. The police officers and especially their leadership virtually live in a different world, a world of commands from the top, different operations, shady schemes, and corruption. [This world] is very different to the values they claim to have and to problems of ordinary people. If I wanted to file a complaint about the police not taking a particular action or behaving abnormally, it would not go anywhere.

Everyone knows that complaining about the police to the police is a waste of time. You can also complain to the prosecutor’s office but that’s a vicious circle. The prosecutor’s office would forward the inquiry to the police department that deals with personnel or internal security. That’s pointless too. It’s a closed system; it personally deals with the complaints about itself.

And who is to deal with the reform? The [interior] minister?

Yes, first and foremost the minister. Especially looking at the role of our interior minister, Ukraine has never seen such an independent interior minister like [we have] now. He has the resources for big influence. In my opinion, he can talk to the president on equal terms and had he wanted to, he could move reform mountains.

What’s stopping him?

Maybe he doesn’t have enough willpower or has a different vision. I can’t say everything is going badly. There are positive aspects, part of them is the little changes to the police’s work and some positive experience in different regions [of Ukraine].

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Maria Romanenko & Eilish Hart