Ukraine Seeks Foreign Help on Police Reform
The Ukrainian police have barely changed since the days of the Soviet Union. “A Soviet legacy, our police is not about protecting people, it is about protecting the authorities from the people,” says Anton Gerashchenko, a senior member of the parliament. Policemen are also badly underpaid and poorly equipped. It’s common for patrol car cops to pay for gasoline out of their own pockets. Little wonder many of them order motorists to pay up if they don’t want to be reported for speeding or running a red light.
Gerashchenko is drafting legislation to kick-start police reform, working with a protégée of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of nearby Georgia. Appointed first deputy interior minister of Georgia at the age of 27, Eka Zguladze oversaw much of the overhaul of the country’s police from 2006 to 2012. Now 36, she’s occupying the same post again—in Ukraine. Zguladze is one of roughly a dozen foreign nationals who’ve assumed senior posts in the government. An American runs the Ministry of Finance, while a Lithuanian heads the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. All have been issued Ukrainian passports by President Petro Poroshenko.
Zguladze, a native Georgian, had no special training in law enforcement: She spent a year in high school in Oklahoma and majored in journalism at the University of Tbilisi in Georgia. She’s known for her toughness and ability to make difficult decisions. Christopher Smith, an American Embassy official in Kiev who deals with government aid to law enforcement agencies, says working with Zguladze is “fantastic.”
She’s still adapting to her new environment. Appearing on a TV show in late January, she referred to Ukraine as “your country” and asked a call-in question to be translated from Ukrainian into Russian. Her foreignness is more an advantage than a liability. With her ready smile and academic demeanor, she’s a radical departure from the menacing style of ex-Soviet lawmen. “Ukraine is fighting two wars at once,” she says. “One is the actual war in the east, and the other is about reforms. You can’t win one without winning the other.”
In Ukraine, which has one of the highest numbers of police per capita in Europe (376 per 100,000 people, vs. 300 on average for Europe), police are trusted by only 3 percent of the population, according to “The Concept of Police Reform,” a recent government policy paper. A much publicized incident in June 2013 in the village of Vradiyevka, where policemen gang-raped a woman and then tried to kill her, and the brutality of riot cops during the revolution in central Kiev a year ago, make the police one of Ukraine’s most unpopular institutions.
Georgia replaced its entire force within a few weeks of the start of reform in 2005. The newly recruited police received much better salaries than their predecessors and more modern equipment. To test the policemen’s honesty, special agents approached cops on the beat and offered them bribes to bend the law. Those who took the bait faced prosecution.
Because of her work with a U.S. foreign aid agency in Georgia, Zguladze was recruited in 2006 by the Georgian interior ministry to keep police reform on track. She’s best known for drafting laws making it easier to convict Georgia’s notorious mob bosses.
The Ukrainian government’s aim is to radically change the law enforcement culture. “We are likely to have 80 percent of the police personnel replaced within five years,” Gerashchenko says. In Kiev the government wants a force that does away with the old distinctions between traffic cops and beat cops and focuses solely on crime prevention. Some 27,000 Kievans have applied to fill 2,000 positions that will remain after the existing force is slashed by half. Many of the newcomers are, in Zguladze’s words, “socially motivated”—inspired by the 2014 Kiev revolution and willing to leave better-paying jobs.
Dropping off his application at a convention hall used as a recruiting center, Vladislav Stelmakh says he earns more in construction, but took part in the revolution and wants to fight corruption. “Besides, it is simply a more interesting job,” he says.
Viktoria, who won’t give her last name, likes the salary—as much as 8,000 hryvni ($491) a month. Patrol policemen now make 2,000 hryvni. A medic married to a police detective, Viktoria doubts that changing the police culture is possible. “I think corruption is invincible,” she says.
Candidates face a four-stage process that includes a test of general skills (analytical powers and ability to communicate), a physical, psychological profiling, and a face-to-face interview. That’s routine practice in the U.S., but a radical departure for Ukraine. The selection and subsequent training will be supervised by a team of cops from Reno, Nev., who are part of a program administered by the U.S. Department of Justice. “I’ll be their Mahoney,” one of the applicants jokes, referring to the mocking main character in the 1980s U.S. comedy Police Academy. The new recruits, sporting new uniforms and equipment funded by foreign donors including the U.S. and the European Union, will be patrolling Kiev’s streets by June. “I am sure the moment the first steps will be made,” Zguladze says, “donor assistance will become both stronger and broader.”
The bottom line: Reforming the Ukrainian police force will require foreign aid, new equipment, and zero tolerance for corruption.