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New police force finds old habits die hard in Ukraine

The experience shows how fragile Ukraine's progress in transforming itself into a Western-facing free market democracy could prove to be

Matthias Williams and Margaryta Chornokondratenko for Reuters report: The launch of Ukraine's new police patrol force last year sparked an internet craze of citizens posting selfies with newly recruited officers. Their popularity stemmed not from their uniforms, body cameras and tablets, but the fact they did not demand bribes.

The most visibly successful reform to have emerged from the pro-European Maidan protests in 2014 is now under threat, serving and former law enforcement officials say, accusing vested interests of seeking to obstruct and discredit the force.

The reform, possibly the first one in the former Soviet republic’s history actually demonstrated that despite all, Ukraine is able to carry out some improvements. Before Maidan in 2014, police used to abide by prosecutors’ demands, but it all changed when the National Police, a separate and equal law enforcement power, was established.

Vladyslav Vlasiuk, a lawyer by training who rose through patrol police ranks to become Chief of Staff of the National Police, said: “Prosecutors did not like it. We are seeing the prosecution service chasing patrol officers for wrongdoings. There is now a tension which is blocking the reform of the national police."

In Ukraine, prosecutors have the power to launch investigations into public servants suspected of wrongdoing -- a power which police officers say is being abused.

"When you are working within any public service in Ukraine you have to be ready to deal with a lot of inspections, a lot of bullshit, a lot of irrelevant regulations," Vlasiuk said. "And the prosecution is a controlling organ which can punish you for, in their opinion, improper actions," he added.

The United States and the European Union, which are co-providing a $40 billion aid-for-reform program for Ukraine, have repeatedly called for a clean-up of the General Prosecutor's office, which they see as a major impediment to fighting corruption.

Several high-profile reformers have been sacked from the government and prosecution service or resigned in frustration.

First Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze has left her position in the office. Her resignation statement gave no reason but contained a warning over the future of the reforms.

"I want to emphasize that these islands of success will drown in the ocean of corruption, nihilism, the bureaucracy if we do not build bridges between them, creating a continent," she said. "And if in Ukraine we do not have the strength to go forward, the door, that we just opened, may close forever."

The new patrol section was established in July and integrated into a renovated National Police force. However, there were and still are major obstacles that prevent the new department from functioning fully. Georgian technocrat Khatia Dekanoidze in charge of the National Police, described in a separate interview cases of vested interests undermining change.

An initiative to fire corrupt or incompetent officers by setting them in a "reattestation" process has led to hundreds of lawsuits by sacked officers, some of whom got their jobs back.

Dekanoidze assumed that judges were intentionally bringing discredited officers to their former positions for fear the judiciary could be next.

"This is a revenge of the old system, because the judiciary system, especially courts, they are part of the old system," Dekanoidze said.

A notable incident had arisen on the night of Feb 7 when a police car pursued a speeding BMW through the streets of Kiev. Starting with warning shots, three police officers fired a total of 34 bullets at the car; eventually, one of the bullets killed a 17-year-old passenger inside. Prosecutors accused the officer of deliberate murder and abuse of authority; he is under house arrest while an investigation is conducted.

Police said the officer was trying to protect the public from a driver who was driving while intoxicated. However, Anton Gerashchenko, a lawmaker, and member of the interior ministry council, said the case was an example of prosecutors seeking to show they remained in control by discrediting police.

Dekanoidze echoed that view. "Police reform is the only reform that is visible, that is a real reform for Ukrainians," she said. So when prosecutors went after those defending the lives of ordinary Ukrainians, "it looked like The Inquisition." She added there were other cases when police had gone after illegal gambling rackets -- only for prosecutors to open criminal cases against the officers.

A Western diplomat, who did not want to be identified by name, said the fight back by prosecutors showed reforms were starting to have a real impact. "Prosecutors here are millionaires," the diplomat said. "They are powerful people who will fight to the very end to protect the resources vertical they created."

However, it remains to be seen if Yuriy Lutsenko, the new General Prosecutor, will change anything. Dekanoidze said she hopes prosecutors under Lutsenko will cooperate with the police. "Because ... without a good and fair prosecution, police can't do anything."

 

By Stefan Paraber for GIA.

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