A Bird Rebellion

27 September 2012, 18:07

The actions of the Berkut (Golden Eagle) special forces unit set a precedent for Ukraine’s Interior Ministry bodies. No, its fighters did not rise against the current government by casting off their helmets and joining protesters, as German law enforcement officers recently did. They simply tried to inform the public at large that each of them was forced to pay a certain amount, around UAH 150 per month, to their commanders. A criminal case over abuse of office has already been initiated against the commanders of a Berkut unit.


This extortion is a routine matter in law enforcement agencies, but it does normally surface. Speaking off the record, officers say that extortion “has, and always will exist” in Berkut and other structures of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Moreover, policemen are sure that the Berkut protesters in Sumy are understating the amount they are forced to pay. “It is inevitable; there’s no getting away from it. The majority understand this and mutter unhappily, but still hand over the money,” their colleagues say. UAH 150 is a ridiculously small sum. With a monthly salary of more than UAH 4,000 no-one would raise havoc about having to make such paltry “charitable” donations.

“I will write down what I personally know,” stresses a user, registered as Unknown on a forum for Interior Ministry employees. “The sum is about UAH 1,000, rather than UAH 150, per person.” This amount is far more tangible, but not beyond the means of policemen. According to law enforcement officers, this money is used for a variety of purposes, from purchasing stationery and computers to gifts and bribes to higher officials for turning a blind eye to the failures of the rank-and-file. Many Interior Ministry employees are convinced that the Berkut fighters should not have gone public about the extortion, regardless of the amount of money they were forced to fork out. Some believe squealing of this kind is simply wrong, while others say that silence would be golden if only because now these men will lose their jobs, sooner or later: whatever happens, the initiators will be forced to leave their unit.

Doubts have also been raised over the integrity of those who went public. “Were the Berkut fighters themselves as pure as the driven snow? They don’t violate the law, empty people’s pockets and beat up faces?” another policeman inquires indignantly. “Did the commander keep all the money for himself? He didn’t pass it on upstairs? He didn’t use it to help the unit? I don’t believe it… This is the reality of the contemporary police force. In all units, commanders collect money from their subordinates. Perhaps he is completely off his rocker and his demands exceed their capabilities. If that is the case, they are right; the information should be leaked [to the press]. But not in such a dumb manner…”

Interior Ministry employees mention their illicit earnings uncomfortably often. “In this case, the commander is a real stinker,” a major from Luhansk says. The reason for his contempt for the commander of the Sumy fighters is not the extortion as such, but because he “taxed their legitimate pay, not the money earned on the side”. This is what has outraged the fighters, he maintains. Curiously, “taxes” on unofficial earnings may be in a range that goes far beyond the official pay. “The rate in our unit is up to USD 5,000,” says a Lviv-based Berkut fighter.


Where do Berkut fighters obtain this much money and how? These questions are almost rhetorical. The two sources are largely the extortion of money from people leading illegal ways of life and kickbacks from drug dealers.

At the same time, there are few media reports on proven facts of criminal activities perpetrated by the police. This is possibly because when faced with the choice of a bribe or a complaint against extortionists, most Ukrainian citizens view it as a choice between losing a specific sum of money and their own freedom. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a young student from Kyiv said that he used to have a stable source of additional income by selling drugs. Berkut fighters grabbed him during a drugs deal and later let him go for UAH 50,000. Similar figures are mentioned in official reports. For example, a criminal case was opened in Mykolaiv against three Berkut fighters who demanded USD 5,000 from a man in exchange for not filing charges for the possession of drugs.

A Kyiv resident who sold illegal substances for many years assures us that this is a well-oiled system. Small drug dealers do not survive on the market for very long: they soon have to pay kickbacks or they end up in jail. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies openly protect big dealers, which includes helping them to maintain a monopoly in a certain territory for regular pay. Allegedly, there are less profitable but more surprising schemes. For example, there are a number of drug sale points in the Borshchahivka district in Kyiv, says local resident, Petro. Sometimes Berkut fighters are “on duty” nearby. A person walks out of one such point with drugs, directly into their hands. They confiscate the drugs and money, unless, of course, the drug user wants to end up behind bars. And then, not only do they not arrest the drug dealer, surprise, surprise! – they return the confiscated drugs to him. According to the source that spoke to The Ukrainian Week, they receive half of the price originally paid by the client. However, it would be absurd to implicate only Berkut in cooperation with drug dealers – others are also involved. The complicity of persons from the Interior Ministry in drugs trafficking is often not denied even by their superiors.

What policemen themselves think merely confirms the widespread practice of illegal earnings. “People in trouble are left to their own devices,” they say, when discussing their low salaries. “Smart people do not sit still and earn money any way they can.”


“Welcome to the TRUE COPS! site” reads the welcoming message at http://mvd-ua.com. On the Realities of Service page, future law enforcement officers can read the reflections of experienced policemen about what youngsters can expect in one sphere of law enforcement or another, including Berkut. They emphasise that just about the only benefit of working in this special unit, is that one year of service is counted as one and a half.

Novices are not assigned to serious missions, which according to forum participants are few and far between. The young guys are told they will be simply “standing guard during searches where your very appearance in masks alone will intimidate the proprietor, or conducting boring raids at night clubs without storming into rooms and shouting: “This is Berkut! Everybody get down!”

Experienced colleagues warn would-be fighters that their main mission will be dealing with protest actions. A big headache is journalists: “[Journalists] often make a preliminary deal with representatives of radical movements or simply politicians about provoking [Berkut] members so that later, after carefully editing the recording, they can give the mass media nice videos in which a strong fighter in camouflage is beating up “a helpless fighter for the good of the people”. It turns out that, in addition to journalists, protesters themselves give Berkut fighters a hard time: “It is hard during protests when, standing opposite a crowd shouting “fascist”, “communist henchman”, “servant of a convict” or “Bandera lackey” at you (depending on the political preferences of the protesters) or simply yelling “Death to cops”, you have to silently clench your fists because the commander said: ‘No action without my command.’”


However, not all Berkut fighters want to be the “dogs of the regime”. Many romantically-minded young men join Berkut, and believe that society’s negative attitude to them is partly justified. They are in no hurry to blindly execute inadequate orders. “I don’t want to bow and scrape,” a Berkut fighter comments on his attitude towards the current Ukrainian government. “But that’s the kind of job I have… I am forced to take people in hand. Unfortunately, this is not always fair.”

On the same forum, many policemen offer their views, despite opening themselves to ridicule, about ways to make their colleagues honest and change the system from within and ridding it of its numerous flaws: miserable salaries that lead to corruption; internal extortion; huge “taxes” on money earned on the side, which is often the reason forcing policemen to seek these illicit earnings in the first place, etc. Some contributors say that this year’s little demarche by Berkut fighters in Sumy is the first high-profile protest of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies since the soviet era.

However, the main thing that bothers those tasked with dispersing popular protests, is their own inability to protest. In Ukraine, this is something that is directly prohibited by law for Interior Ministry employees. Law enforcement officers point to the only possible way of expressing their protest today: simply throwing your ID in the face of your boss and saying: “I quit.”

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