Inside Kyiv’s Reformed Riot Police
19 February, 2018

During the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014, the special forces unit of the Ukrainian police — known as the ‘Berkut’ — clashed with protesters in a horrific display of violence and bloodshed. The current Ukrainian government holds the Berkut responsible for the deaths of around 100 protesters, who later became known as the Heavenly Hundred.

This tragic chapter in Ukrainian history triggered a broad reform of the Ukrainian police force. The new National Police replaced the old Soviet-style militia and the Berkut disbanded completely.

The Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, officially launched the new patrol police in July 2015, starting with Kyiv. Regional police departments were set up throughout the country shortly thereafter, and, by November 2015, the patrol police had fully replaced the old militia.   

Four years after the revolution, Ukrainians are taking to the streets again, albeit on a much smaller scale. Protesters have gathered in support of former Odesa regional governor and ex-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili — who was deported from Ukraine last week — and called for the impeachment of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

This time it’s Kyiv’s newly reformed law enforcement who are tasked with managing the crowds.   

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Police Reform: What’s Really Going On?

Hromadske spent the day following the commander of the Kyiv patrol police’s tactical unit Serhiy Romanov as his unit oversees the protests. Serhiy joined the newly reformed patrol police in its first wave, having participated in the 2014 protests and experienced police brutality first hand.

Before joining the police, Serhiy was a research engineer in applied physics, but saw a career in the reformed police as an opportunity to make a real difference in his country. Earlier this year, he was promoted to commander of the tactical unit.  

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

“To me, working in the police is a real chance to do something. It’s not just standing at the side, waving your finger and saying: “You should do this,” it’s going there, trying to do something with your own hands,” Serhiy told Hromadske.

On January 23, 2014, Berkut officers beat Serhiy with nightsticks. As a result, he needed eight stitches. The incident left a scar, a constant reminder of the brutality peaceful protesters faced that winter.

Today, Serhiy is back among the demonstrators, but this time he is on the side of law enforcement. And times have changed. Serhiy notes the difference between the Euromaidan Revolution and some of the protests he polices today.

“There’s a simple difference when you’re at a funded protest and a protest where there is enthusiasm, support from the people. These are two different things. And so, for example, if the Yanukovych scenario repeats itself, when the students gather, the war starts and our current leadership says: ‘We’re cutting our ties with the West again and moving towards the East.’ That could be the reason for another popular uprising.”

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Serhiy’s main job is to oversee the protests, which have remained mostly peaceful. He leads his unit to the protesters’ encampment and advises his men to simply “observe.” They are allowed into the tents, but they are not allowed to pull them down.

“Since this protest has dragged on, it’s impossible for us to constantly have thousands stationed here. We also cannot leave it unattended because that will lead to it spreading. You know, they’re like gas. Gas will take up any free space,” Serhiy explains.

He also points out that they are only permitted to use force as a last resort.  

“If some kind of disturbance starts, we just move in columns between the two sides and divide them. If a fight erupts, we will just hold them back. We won’t beat them. We will only use force if force is used against us.”

But not every incident the tactical unit has to deal with is so straight forward. On October 21, a fight broke out between the leader of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ volunteer battalion, Mykola Kokhanivskiy, and the former commander of the far-right group Right Sector, Ruslan Kachmala. Kokhanivsky attacked his opponent with a non-lethal weapon.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Serhiy was off-duty that day, but was in a cafe nearby when the shots were fired. He rushed to help the patrol police at the scene.

The police detained Kokhanivsky and he appeared in court a few days later, where bail was set. However, the OUN battalion leader’s supporters broke into the courtroom and barricaded the premises. The tactical unit was called in to deal with the incident, together with the special operations regiment of the Kyiv police. They managed to unblock the courtroom, but clashes broke out and the special operations regiment had to use force against the violent protesters.

In the chaos, a number of journalists were injured by law enforcement officers, including the Hromadske journalist who made this video report. 

READ MORE: Despite Ambitions, Ukrainian Police Reform Struggles

While Serhiy is passionate about his work in law enforcement, events like this prove that it is not always easy. Serhiy explains how some officers from the first new wave of police grew disappointed with the reforms and left.

“You’re [constantly] overworked. That’s why you get vacations. But over a period of time, if you don’t get a vacation for a year, it will all build up and you can just break down emotionally; and it will show,” he says. “At such times, you hit the ceiling but then you sleep on it, think it through and you’re practically ready to work again.”

But Serhiy perseveres nonetheless. His commitment to his job stems from his experience during the Euromaidan protests and the tragedies he witnessed.

Hromadske accompanies Serhiy as he visits the Heavenly Hundred memorial to pay his respects to those who lost their lives at the hands of the old militia.

“We give everything we can to the deceased, so they are not forgotten,” he says.

/Video by Dmytro Replyanchuk

/Translation and text by Sofia Fedeczko