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“Eternal” Minister of Interior Avakov leaves. Ukraine’s police problems stay.

Arsen Avakov headed the Ministry for seven years under three . Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko (RFE/RL)
“Eternal” Minister of Interior Avakov leaves. Ukraine’s police problems stay.
Minister of Interior Avakov, nicknamed “eternal” for his ability to survive two presidents and four changes of government, has resigned. His successor will inherit a deeply problematic and even hated police empire.

On 15 July, a historic vote for the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov took place in parliament. Avakov headed the Ministry for seven years under three presidents — interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, Petro Poroshenko, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, yet unexpectedly resigned on 13 July. Now, after parliament supported the resignation, the main questions are what resources his successor will receive, how he will use them, and whether the President’s Office will take it over.

Avakov took up the position as a temporary minister in the difficult times of the Euromaidan Revolution after dictator president Viktor Yanukovych left the country. Back then, Avakov was considered to have helped prevent a Russian occupation of the east-Ukrainian Kharkiv Oblast.

During the next seven years of his tenure, Avakov both ushered in and sabotaged a much-needed law enforcement reform, found ways to retain his position despite all political perturbations, and earned the hatred of civic activists of all stripes.

Protesters near Parliament demanding Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov to resign after a string of heinous crimes committed by police officers at the end of May. The placard in the foreground reads, “Devil must leave”, referring to Minister Avakov. Photo: Facebook page of the Voice party.

When the activists’ dreams finally came true and Avakov resigned, concerns arose as to what would happen next. Among the greatest concerns is that now president Zelenskyy can receive even more power through a new loyal minister who will replace Avakov.

This new minister will wield plenty of power. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is not only about the police. Its chief is also a member of the State Security and Defence Council, the coordinating body for national security and defense under the President of Ukraine. Also, apart from the National Police, the system of the Ministry’s bodies includes:

  • the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine,
  • the State Emergency Service of Ukraine,
  • the State Migration Service of Ukraine,
  • and the National Guard of Ukraine.

The latter, apart from military functions, is endowed with a number of police functions. Coming to power in 2019, Zelenskyy announced plans to subordinate the National Guard to the president. However, it has not happened. Experts suggest that these statements were part of a political game and state that the National Guard turned into Avakov’s private army. The number of National Guard soldiers at protests was usually considered an indicator of Avakov’s position.

Talking about resources the Ministry itself possesses, a colorful detail is that when the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020, a good chunk of the anti-Covid fund established to tackle the consequences of the illness was directed to the Ministry of Interior — the only law enforcement institution whose budget was increased during the pandemic. A controversial step considering the lack of oxygen machines and other medical supplies at the time.

Who do you call when the police kill?

Kyiv, the sign “Who do you call when the police kill?”. Photo from open sources.

Who do you call when the police kill? This question can be found on the fences of Ukrainian cities as a part of the protest movement against Avakov and his policy.

The movement against Avakov started to grow in 2018 when it became clear that local police cover corrupt local authorities who persecute local activists. In some cases, law enforcers themselves took part in the persecution. The catalyst of the protests against Avakov was the acid attack on the Kherson activist Kateryna Hadziuk. In her case, the police got active only after a public uproar. Three months after the attack, Handziuk died in a hospital. And the activists’ outrage against Avakov had soared.

The movement against Avakov protests not only the epidemic of attacks on activists with the connivance of the police. Often, ordinary citizens fall victim to the police’s destructive actions. Among the most outrageous examples is that of the police murder of a five-year-old boy Kyrylo Tliavov in May 2019, in the city of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Kyiv Oblast Police officers entertained themselves by shooting at bottles set up on a street. They were drunk. Tliavov was playing nearby. A bullet shattered his skull and, after two days in the hospital, resulted in his death.

Among other cases that shook the country, there was the gang rape of a woman in a police department, in May 2020 in Kaharlyk, Kyiv Oblast. The woman walked into a local hospital having endured gang sexual assault and a terrible beating. She stated that police officers were involved. The initial probe confirmed police involvement in the crimes.

According to the data of the State Bureau of Investigation – the agency responsible for crimes committed by law enforcement persons – the victim was restrained with a gas mask and handcuffs while the abusers fired bullets over her head. The incident occurred when the victim was invited to the police to testify as a witness to theft. Later, another victim came forward in the case. A man was beaten in the same police facility at the same time as the woman.

The same month, a mass daylight mass shoot-out took place in the city of Brovary, Kyiv Oblast. Police were blamed for inaction which led to the gunfight.

A sociological poll by the Ilko Kucheriv foundation found that in May 2021, 65.6% of Ukrainians distrusted the police. 66.7% had a negative appraisal of Avakov’s work.

All of these cases, which are only the tip of the iceberg, exist because a systemic reform of law enforcement never happened.

Long years without reform

Ukraine’s law enforcement system has been rotten for a long time. Everywhere in the post-Soviet area, getting it to serve people, not the regime, became a real challenge. Before the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukrainian militsiya (the old name of the police) was known for its uncontrolled arbitrariness. During the Revolution, in general, militsiya chose to defend the regime and take up arms against the people it had sworn to protect.

Therefore, after Euromaidan, police reform was included to the list of the top-priorities. The reform swiftly started in 2015 with the introduction of a new unit — patrol police. Cops in new uniforms first flooded Kyiv and then gradually started to appear in other cities of Ukraine. Citizens were happy to take selfies with the police representatives who were perceived as a fresh new force unrelated to the old corrupted system. Minister Avakov and Georgian reformers Eka Zguladze and Khatia Dekanoidze drove the process. In 2015, it was considered a success.

The patrol police were just a small part of the big reform which was about to come.

But the core of the police — operational units, including the criminal police and pre-trial investigation bodies responsible for the crimes like murders, rapes, robberies — were never revamped.

In 2016, an attestation of the policemen took place, however, it did not bring significant changes. Only about 8% of policemen were dismissed. Moreover, a large part of that 8% got reinstated through court appeals and the state even paid them compensation for not being able to work during the court hearings.

Moreover, nowadays even the patrol police are no longer considered a success. Six years after their launch, the situation changed dramatically. The unit experiences a lack of employees and a great staff turnover.

Avakov’s successor will inherit an unreformed system, but the question is whether he will do something about it.

Sheremet’s case

The investigation into the murder of Belarus-Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sheremet stands out among these cases” President Zelenskyy announced it a benchmark for the evaluation of Avakov’s work. However, there is no progress in the investigation, and the future minister will have to deal with this case.

Sheremet was killed on 20 July 2016. For three years, the police investigation gave no results, compelling journalists to launch their own probe.

Only in December 2019, already during Zelenskyy’s presidency, police came up with information on the case. However, these results became even more disappointing than their absence. A rock musician, a surgeon, and a military nurse, all of whom volunteered for the army, were pinned as the culprits. For over a year and a half, clear proof of their fault was not presented to the public.

Meanwhile, the police have still not come up with who had ordered the crime, yet the case is now being considered in court. A protest movement has grown in support of the three accused volunteers.

Still, it is unclear whether the lack of progress in the case influenced Avakov’s resignation. The reasons for it are full of mysteries and assumptions.

Who is next?

Denys Monastyrskyi, the Servant of the People MP is Zelenskyy’s candudate for the position. Photo: Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL)

Avakov, who was usually very public on social media, resigned on 13 July and until now did not offer any explanations. When on 15 July MPs voted in favor of the resignation, he did not even appear in Parliament.

Rumors of his resignation, though, started to appear a few days earlier.

As Ukrainska Pravda wrote, before his visit to Berlin, Zelenskyy called an MP from his Servant of the People party Denys Monastyrskyi to his office asking whether the MP wanted to replace Avakov. Monastyrskyi allegedly agreed. The MP is considered to be affiliated with Minister Avakov.

Also, before the big news, Ukrainian media reported a conflict between Avakov and the head of the President’s Office Andriy Yermak. As Ukrainska Pravda writes, in private conversations Avakov calls Yermak an agent of Russian influence.

The media outlines that the tectonic shift in the relationship between Zelenskyy and Avakov happened in May 2021, when during his yearly press conference Zelenskyy admitted that he keeps in touch with Yana Duhar, one of those incriminated in Sheremet’s murder. As well, in June Zelenskyy introduced sanctions against companies related to Kharkiv businessman Pavlo Fuks, who is considered close to Avakov. The media summarizes that the events could have been nothing more than a preparation for Avakov’s resignation.

Formally, there were three ways to do it — resignation of the whole government and not appointing Avakov in the new one, a submission of the Prime Minister to parliament to dismiss the Interior Minister, and the voluntary resignation of Avakov himself.

While the first two options were quite problematic, Zelenskyy probably found arguments to make the “eternal” minister leave himself. Why the latter agreed remains a mystery.

On 15 July, Ukrainska Pravda wrote that Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal submitted Monastyrskyi for the position of minister. The voting for his candidacy is expected to take place on 16 July.

“In general, Denys is super worthy. Especially compared to Oleh Tatarov [Yermak’s odious deputy who heads the law enforcement direction in the President’s Office]. They need a weak and calm minister. That’s why they want Monastyrskyi. It’s like Shmygal only in the Interior Ministry,” an interlocutor from Avakov’s inner circle told Ukrainska Pravda.

Another interlocutor of the media from Zelenskyy’s team says that either Avakov’s successor quickly takes the system under control, or the above-mentioned Tatarov who hails from the corrupted law enforcement system himself will run the show.

The outlet summarizes that while the transformation of a timid Monastyrskyi into an apparatus monster is rather a theoretical threat, the manual control by the President’s Office is a real one.

Meanwhile, as Ukrinform informs, Oleksandr Korniyenko, first deputy head of the Servant of the People faction, said that Avakov would be the best candidate for mayor of Kharkiv. On February 24, the Kharkiv City Council terminated the powers of Hennadiy Kernes, who died of coronavirus in December 2020. However, Korniyenko did not clarify whether the party would submit Avakov’s candidacy.

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