Spell our name with a ‘mi’: Ukrainian law enforcement and the new patrol police

Eka Zguladze embraces Kyiv's new police officers. Photo: Yulia Babych 


Article by: Lucy Sohryu
Ukraine’s police reform under the guidance of Eka Zguladze, former Georgian Minister of Interior and now first deputy Minister of Interior of Ukraine, is one of Ukraine’s most ostensible reforms. Georgia’s successful police reform was an inspiration and cause for envy among Ukrainians for years. Ms. Zguladze was one of the foreigners invited to implement this example in Ukraine by the post-Maidan government in December 2014. For some Ukrainians, this reform is short-of-a-miracle proof that Ukraine is changing; for others, it is merely window dressing that hide the absence of more pressing issues like judicial reform. Today we provide a bit of background information on Ukraine’s many faces of police.

Kyiv’s new patrol police was presented on 11 June 2015 in Kyiv. Photos by Yulia Babych

I’ve seen too many Western observers use the word ‘police’ to describe militsiya, even if technically it is wrong. Militsiya is not the police; it’s the militsiya, same as ‘militia’ and initially meaning an ‘armed citizens’ force’. Police in the Russian Empire was universally hated, not to mention used as a tool of oppression by the Tsarist government, so the Bolsheviks, after seizing power in a coup (what ex-USSR continues to celebrate as the Great Socialist October Revoultion while, for some reason, Maidan is ‘a violent Nazi coup’), promptly did away with police and replaced it with militsiya, a people’s law enforcement agency. Soviet militsiya is an interesting subject that would take several posts on its own, but, after USSR collapsed, the name – and structure – kept on. Russia famously replaced militsiya with politsiya four years ago, to much debate, but apparently it’s just militsiya with serial numbers filed off. Police reform in Ukraine was an on-and-off subject for some years before becoming reality just now, and about time. This will be hard, though; practically nobody in Ukraine likes militsiya, and new Ukrainian cops will first have to prove they’re different. Given how insufferable Ukrainian society is, this is going to be hard.[…]

Militsiya in Ukraine is a unified structure, with regional headquarters (usually translated into English as ‘directorates’) directly subordinated to the central HQ in Kyiv; thus it is less ‘Kyiv militsiya’ and more ‘Kyiv branch of militsiya’. More importantly, I’ve seen Western observers confuse Kyiv city militsiya with Kyiv oblast militsiya, thus we have statements like ‘Vadym Troyan, chief of Kyiv police’, which is incorrect on both levels (he’s chief of Kyiv oblast militsiya). A quick refresher course on Ukraine’s administrative divisions is here. Moreover, there is also the railroad, or ‘line’ militsiya on each of Ukraine’s imaginatively named railroads (the Southwestern Railroad, for example, which is in the north of the country); line militsiya was important in policing USSR’s extensive railroad network, but their status is unclear as of now. Unlike Western police services, militsiya also has a different internal structure, with following services:

– the Patrol Service (Patrulno-postova sluzhba, or PPS), basically your average beat cops who are also used as brute force to reinforce riot police; the saying is that ‘two troopmen from PPS fill in for a squad of SS’. PPS is to be replaced by the new Police Patrol Service;

– the State Traffic Inspection (Derzhavna avtoinspektsiya, or DAI), basically the highly-corrupt traffic police who will relentlessly pump you for bribes until you pay them. Most Ukrainians choose to pay and then bitch about how the DAI is corrupt. To be replaced by the new Police Patrol Service;

– the State Security Service (Derzhavna sluzhba okhorony, or DSO), who have nothing to do with state security; they are protection police who guard certain places and respond to emergency calls from the citizens (most businesses in Ukraine have the ‘guarded by DSO’ sticker somewhere, which means that if you break the law in there, the militsiya will come and get your ass). Perhaps the most famous place they guard is the Chornobyl Zone of Alienation, where their job mostly consists of telling stalkers to get out of here. To be reorganized into the new Protection Police with the same functions[…];

– the Criminal Investigations department (karny rozshuk, same as Russian ugolovnyi rozysk), the plainclothes police detectives who actually maybe possibly investigate and solve crimes. In fact, they are not called ‘detectives’, but rather ‘operative personnel’ (the rather long word operupolnomochennyi) or simply ‘oper’. To be replaced by the new Criminal Police service […]; not sure if the ‘opers’ will become ‘detectives’ all of a sudden, though. ‘Inspector’ is more stylish; even the Soviet militsiya had ‘ugolovny rozysk inspectors’ for about 1970-1980;

– the Investigations department (slidche upravlinnya), the people who are actually in charge of criminal investigations; ‘opers’ do all the legwork and ‘sledaks’ compile it into a single ‘delo’ which is then handed over to the prosecution. The opers and sledaks exist in a peculiar sort of rivalry, exacerbated by the fact that investigators aren’t really militsiya officers, but rather justice officers, much like prosecutors. Not sure if this will be replaced;

riot police. Previously this was the infamous Berkut unit, supplemented by Internal Troops servicemen and PPS beat cops as needed; today Berkut is disbanded (and is legally part of the PPS), National Guard usually has other duties, and the riot control tasks often fall on regular PPS or the volunteer militsiya battalions. Usually called ‘cosmonauts’ due to their round Sfera riot helmets. To be replaced by Special Police; my guess is that this will comprise the current volunteer battalions in a full-time capacity;

police special forces, what was once HUBOZ (Main Directorate of Combating Organized Crime); this is disbanded now, but militsiya spetsnaz remains. Of particular note is the Sokil unit, which is basically the Ukrainian equivalent of SWAT. Actually, this is wrong: Ukrainian SWAT will be called KORD (Korpus operatyvno-raptovoi diyi, i.e. Rapid Reaction Corps) and will subsume most existing militsiya spetsnaz units now in existence, including Sokil. There are also the Tytan (‘Titan’) and Gryfon (‘Grifon’) units, the first under the DSO and the second charged with protecting court officials; and there are also National Guard spetsnaz units who defend important military-industrial objects and nuclear power plants, but, again, they’re National Guard, not militsiya.

Actually, National Guard are often confused with militsiya; this is because Interior Troops servicemen usually wore militsiya uniforms (and, in fact, many officers still do), so you couldn’t tell one from the other. Most of the time you see militsiya on the streets, they’re PPS beat cops or DAI inspectors trolling for bribes; most of the time you see National Guardsmen, they wear their new Cadian Shock Troops-style khaki uniforms and hang around foreign embassies, which they guard. However, there is still some stigma of being ‘ments’ and ‘musors’ attached to the National Guard for some reason, ‘musor’ (literally ‘trash’) being the highly-offensive word for a militsiya officer.

There is also one peculiar brand of militsiya officer in existence in former USSR, one that is called ‘uchastkovyi‘ or ‘district cop’; basically, they are community police officers in charge of most low-level policing and keeping tabs on troublesome elements and former criminals in their area of responsibility (uchastok). In the cities the uchastkovyi’s powers are limited by the immediate presence of other militsiya officers, while in the countryside the uchastkovyi is actually quite similar to the American sheriff, sometimes being the only law enforcement officer for kilometers around. The system is so grounded that I’m not sure uchastkovy is are going to be abolished by the police reform; this will probably also depend on the larger decentralization and administrative reform in Ukraine.

Speaking of bribes. Ukrainian militsiya is more or less universally hated by the population because, yes, it is extremely corrupt. Militsiya officers take bribes, and in fact people like DAI inspectors live entirely off these bribes; militsiya routinely abuses their powers; and, moreover, militsiya is insufficiently motivated, or not motivated at all. The fact they were a tool of oppression under Yanukovych’s Ancient Regime (or under Kuchma’s even more Ancient Regime) doesn’t help, either; doesn’t help so much that some people can get away with killing or wounding militsiya officers and then say that they are ‘avengers’ and ‘freedom fighters’ against the ‘corrupt regime’, and the society will largely get behind them. Right-wing TRUE UKRAINIAN PATRIOTS are the most guilty of this; in fact, the recent scandal was that four people, one of them underage, attacked and robbed a gas station, wounded the attendant and then killed two militsiya officers in the ensuing chase. After they were arrested, they immediately claimed the dead officers were former Berkut troopers, and that they were ‘avenging Maidan’. First you steal 800 UAH from a cash register, then you kill two cops, then you are an ‘avenger’ and a hero that Ukraine deserves. Apparently. Granted, this is a vocal minority […], but the rest of the population is pretty similar: they don’t like militsiya, they don’t trust militsiya, and, in fact, they hate militsiya.

A Ukrainian militsiya officer is thus in an unenviable position. He gets abused by his superiors who get much better salaries and benefits that he does (high-ranking militsiya officers can be downright well-off), he is hated by the people he ostensibly protects, he is saddled by an outdated ‘stick system’ of measuring militsiya effectiveness (the opers and sledaks are the most saddled by it, basically meaning they have to solve a set number of cases a month to fulfill the plan, with no incentive to tackle crimes actually reported by the populace), high-ranking lawbreakers like deputies, judges, prosecutors and people with connections (usually all having Donetsk or Luhansk registrations and license plates) laugh in his face, and whenever he does something he is supposed to do, it is usually underappreciated or not appreciated at all. There is no difference, no motivation, and thus most militsiya officers turn to bribes and power abuse just because they have no other option. To give you a measure, DAI inspectors often have to use their bribe money to pay for gas; this is how ‘well-funded’ the militsiya is.

It was the worst just after Maidan: after it won, the militsiya took a huge hit in morale – they were intensively psyched up against the protesters, and the protesters won. For a few days, militsiya in Kyiv was practically nonexistent. The post-Maidan government had to rebuild the whole chain of command from scratch. It is no wonder most militsiya officers in the southwestern regions just stood by while pro-Russian demonstrations got increasingly violent, if they didn’t defect to the separatists entirely. In Kharkiv, militsiya stood by while hired thugs from Belgorod beat and abused Euromaidan supporters, and did nothing when separatists captured the regional administration building. In Donetsk, militsiya attached St. George’s Ribbons to their uniforms and stood by while Donetsk vatniks savaged the local pro-Ukrainian supporters. In Odessa, the militsiya actually covered the local pro-Russian protesters while the latter fucking shot at the unarmed pro-Ukrainian rally. This is to name but a few, and this is why militsiya is hated even more, it’s basically a circle of hate.

Of course, things are different now. Quite a few militsiya officers are out there in Donbas, manning the checkpoints or, in some cases, actually fighting on the front. Donetsk oblast militsiya is now less Donetsk oblast militsiya and more Royal Ulster Constabulary given the shit they have to handle (the list includes allegations that they are all bought by Akhmetov, AGAIN). In fact, most of Donetsk and Luhansk militsiya was purged, and quite a few officers ended up imprisoned for aiding separatists. New people are trickling into militsiya; new people who fought in the war, in fact. Yet all the problems militsiya faces remain.

As for police reform, it moves on to Lviv, Odessa and Kharkiv next; the goal is to streamline law enforcement by abolishing DAI and PPS (i.e. the branches that generate most of hate people have for militsiya) and replacing them by the newly-recruited and trained patrol police. I can only wish them luck, because, as I said, no one trusts law enforcement; winning back that trust is going to be a long road.

The other part of that road is the judicial system, with its habit of releasing suspected crooks on bail, after which these crooks promptly flee the country. The ridiculously lenient Criminal Code, adopted under the Ancient Regime, is partially to blame; but not only this does not help Ukrainians’ trust in the militsiya (most Ukrainians have trouble grasping the idea of separation of powers, given how often militsiya and the courts acted as one in the past), this also demoralizes and demotivates militsiya officers themselves: they do all the legwork to drag some fucker to the court only for the court to let him off scot free; and the public blames not the court but them.

This does not help.

Some might say law enforcement reform is badly delayed. The problem is, of course, with the war, when the government had to care less about reform and more about making do with what they had. What they had was, as I said above, not much; it’s a wonder they made it work at all.

Maybe Ukraine is not a country of promises, but a country of miracles: because that sure is one of them.

Source: Abridged from TheUkraineToday

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  1. Avatar Nowhere Girl says:

    I’ve seen a satirical image of a tombstone with the words: “Berkut – fallen while protecting the Golden Toilet”.

    Well, as for more serious matters… Ms. Zguladze will surely have a lot of work. I’ve read that actually a large percentage of the police is to be wholly replaced and that they should be well-paid to eliminate the incentive for taking bribes. Still, it requires more work… a Ukrainian road militia officer could hardly survive without bribes, but now, apart from making police financially bribe-independent, one has to actively fight corruption, otherwise old patterns will return at least partially.

    Measuring police work by their “effectiveness” is tricky. It’s also done in Poland and the result is that the police prefers “investigating” virtually harmless petty crime which is also safe for them. The criminal police loves drug crimes, especially the most common one, cannabis possession (note: I’m strongly against drug prohibition in general, I believe the right to alter one’s consciousness is a matter of human rights) – it’s very easy for them because finding such cases means they have already found the perpetrator. So they basically just randomly search young people’s bags, mostly in the evenings, mostly relying on stereotypes: young men dressed in rasta or hip hop style as the most likely culprits. Another favorite crime was drunk cycling – risky, but still much less harmful than drunk driving… however, later the law was amended to reduce penalties for drunk cyclists. Road police in the cities prefers catching pedestrians who are crossing the road where/when it’s not allowed (Polish traffic law is quite unfriendly for pedestrians, for example drivers are only required to let a pedestrian pass when (s)he is already on the road – in result Poland has the highest number of pedestrian deaths in the EU, this is just horrible) – pedestrians are much easier to catch than law-breaking drivers who are a much bigger problem…

  2. Avatar Brent says:

    I was fascinated to get Lucy Sorhyu’s explanation of the lack of involvement of the ‘militsia’ during the Donetsk and Odessa protests because I had seen the lack of action in stopping Russian thugs and provocateurs and honestly couldn’t understand why they didn’t stop them from attacking pro Ukrainians as that is not how the police act where I live. Now I understand why. Don’t get me wrong. Our police are not perfect, but non one has perfect policing.

    Hopefully most people can also understand and accept this is just the start of the changes that need to be made, and be patient with Ukraine. It’s not just changing the rules, it’s changing the culture.

    Police in most civilized countries have a high degree of respect from most of their populations. Not everyone respects them, and not all of them deserve respect, but a solid majority do in a civilized country. There will always be criminals, there will always be ‘bad applies’ in the police departments, and there will also be ‘corruption’. But at least it will not be ‘rotten to the core’ as in the past.

    This is the first of many steps Ukraine must make. This is the first building block for a new nation. Be patient. It won’t happen overnight. It’s better than reverting to the previous system and the system Russia currently has and what Russian citizens still endure.