The Yanukovych regime does not realize all the risks of de-legitimization in the eyes of the people
July 2013: a popular uprising has sparked up in the town of Vradiyivka, caused by the attempts of local law enforcement agencies to cover up the rape and beating of a town resident by policemen. In the Sviatoshyn district of Kyiv, workers of the Shlyakh (Way) market are storming the district police station, rallying in defence of a girl who was struck by a law enforcement officer. Activists are forcing their way into the Fastiv regional police station in Kyiv Oblast, demanding that the police allow them to inspect its premises in order to check information provided by local residents that there are special rooms there, designated for the torture of people who have been detained.
In the last three years, there have been ever more rallies against the illegal actions of law enforcers. They have now become a clear trend: popular resistance against the police is increasing in Ukraine. Public opinion shows that the body that should be protecting the law is now operating outside the law. It is synonymous with murder, torture, corruption and the purchase and sale of criminal cases. In May, the Sociology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine published the shocking data of a public opinion poll: only 1% of Ukrainians have complete trust in the police. This is a striking contrast with neighbouring Poland, where the police enjoys the complete trust of more than 50% of the population, or Georgia, where this index exceeds 85%.
In a civilized country, a low level of trust in its law enforcement agency would be a signal for immediate reform. In the case of Ukraine, instead of reform, the police was involved in a range of public scandals, which compromised it even more. Police officers have demonstrated either a complete lack of action, as was the case with the seizure of the home of Kyiv teacher Nina Moskalenko, or the blatant and brutal execution of political orders, such as during opposition rallies, “language” protests and the 2012 election.
Obviously, public distrust for the police stems not only from its critical degradation as a law enforcement system, which people have long stopped viewing as their protector. The reaction of the police to protests against the government clearly demonstrated that it is the guard dog of the Yanukovych regime. So society no longer views the police as a separate caste, but as part of the current government system. People are not storming regional police stations simply because that they resist the arbitrariness of the police, but probably first and foremost because the police, as a representative of the regime, is closest to the people. It seems to have become the first victim of the government’s de-legitimization in the eyes of the public.
The government had two options in reaction to the public uprising against the police.
The “adequate” scenario provided for the dismissal of Vitaliy Zakharchenko. Even though he is loyal to Yanukovych, this could be an option since there is a so-called gas group in the government that has long been trying to get rid of him. Then, a new minister could be appointed who would declare the reform of the law enforcement system. The latter could nominally change commanders of several oblast police offices and begin showcase trials against two or three officers. In addition, he could respond to complaints regarding torture against suspects with a few more criminal cases. A number of oblast offices could undergo re-attestation. The government could grant amnesty to people who committed minor breaches when storming regional police stations. In other words, everything could be done to stage a beautiful show of energetic activity, which the regime has been doing all the time lately. Even such superficial measures would win back some votes to add to Yanukovych’s plummeting rating.
The “aggressive” option would not provide for any notable dismissals and trials of highly-placed police officials, while bringing opposition members and public activists who participated in rallies to account.
In spite of the fact that the Interior Ministry did not immediately react to the events in Vradiyivka (the public uprising could have been diffused by rapid and professional action: the dismissal of the heads of the oblast police office and the regional police station, the detention of Dryzhak – the rapist police officer, etc.), the government seemed willing to opt for the “adequate scenario” after the storming there. At least, this is what the initial dismissal of law enforcers on the regional level implied. But after the rally at the Sviatoshyno police station in Kyiv, the rhetoric took a different tone. Deputy Head of the VR Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Committee, Party of the Regions’ Mykola Dzhyha, said that “acts are being drafted to increase responsibility for attacks of police officers.” Law enforcers on different levels have been threatening to bring the initiators of the Sviatoshyno rally to account. Pro-government mass media buzz about police officers “injured” in the storming. “Police officers” are debating the need of forced crushing of protests in social media. Thus, it looks like the government has chosen the most aggressive option of reaction to protests against the police, thus once more telling the latter that it is completely satisfied with the current hierarchy, there is no point in changing anything, and most importantly, that people in uniform continue to serve and protect the regime.
This must be why the Interior Minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, decided to go on holiday with a clear conscience, the feeling that he has fulfilled his duty, and green light from the president apparently. Attacks on police stations appear to be a secondary issue provided that the most important one is resolved: the position of chief of police is his for several more years. Hated by the people, but trusted by the president. On the eve of a difficult presidential election, this is exactly the kind of interior minister he needs – a loyal chief of police, who will execute any order he is given for the president’s trust he enjoys now.
However, if the government is truly counting on the “aggressive scenario”, it is making a great mistake thinking that in the hour of need, all policemen without exception will execute any order. The first protests against the police have already alarmed police employees. Still, no way are all of them ready to go along with the proposals of their colleagues on the online police forum (where many professional provocateurs operate by the way) to “open fire to defeat storming attempts” and “act very severely, not paying attention to any liberal blah-blah.” “I wouldn’t be so sure that force will end the Vradiyivka syndrome… this is Kyiv, and the reaction of people there is unpredictable… 4.5 million people who, to put it mildly, are dissatisfied with the government – it’s a powder keg … I personally would not take the risk...,” said a post by Angelys007, a police officer from Cherkasy, on the forum. Many police officers share his opinion.
It was always like this in history: The majority always put pressure on collaborators, until there are fewer and fewer people for the regime to rely on. Eventually, this leads to its inevitable collapse.