ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2014
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A Regional Perspective
A Regional Perspective on Post-Maidan Domestic Security
In stark contrast with the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan bore a profoundly regional character. As in 2004, scores of demonstrators travelled to Kyiv from all parts of the country, set up their tents and displayed their regional insignia on Maidan. They proclaimed their local identity loud and clear. Yet, this time, small maidans were also erected in the central squares of most towns and cities across Ukraine. The local tent villages reverberated and fed, at the same time, the polarised debates that animated the capital throughout the protest movement.
Demands for profound changes in the way the state was organised, also at a regional level, sent shockwaves down the spine of the fragile central authorities, even after the appointment of the Yatsenyuk government. Confrontation between pro- and against-Maidan activists, often culminating in clashes, symbolically fought around the local Lenin monuments, signalled that in the streets of Ukraine people were struggling not only for the distant “European values” enshrined in the Association Agreement.
As a Western diplomat put it, this was a “Maidan for dignity”. People rebelled in the name of something much more tangible and close to their everyday life. In Andrei Kurkov’s words, they rose “against the generalised corruption organised by the President-in-hiding Yanukovich and so that the country […] can be governed by the rule of law”.
In the almost four years of his presidency, Viktor Yanukovich set in place a pervasive system of corruption. The process of bribe-giving/bribe-taking was institutionalised in a parallel vertikal vlasti (power structure), replicating codes and hierarchies typical of the criminal world. While the top leadership of most regions was replaced with Donetsk loyalists, a smotryashii (a guardian), outside the formal structures of power and often presenting himself as a munificent patron of the arts, was tasked with regulating the bribe-traffic.
Without necessarily setting the prices for the services provided, the smotryashii would supervise the harvesting. He would then apportion the dividends between the local leadership - including more often than not, the heads of the law enforcement agencies, and the Family back in Kyiv. The latter was unsurprisingly entitled to the lion’s share. In the immediate aftermath of Yanukovich’s departure, journalists in Zaporizhzhya filmed the local smotryashii’s office filled with piles of banknotes, each pile labelled with its intended destination.
Everything had a price, activists reported in many regions. In Zaporizhzhya, for example, a taxi diver was required a nominal fee of UAH 3-10 thousand a month to keep working. Corruption and malpractice suffocated small business. Anti-corruption movements and demonstrations in some regions started well ahead of the Kyiv Maidan. In Zaporizhzhya, again, protesters took to the streets against the mayor already in September.
The Crumbling of a Police State
In the immediate aftermath of Yanukovich’s departure on 22 February, police units and special forces disappeared from the streets. What many Ukrainians viewed as a police state, proportionally larger in size than the Soviet Union, collapsed almost over night. Police and domestic security structures, three times larger and better equipped than the army, had been set in place, at times following murky and illegal procedures, to protect the authorities from society, a former Minister of Defence noted. When the state, in the form of its run-away President and his entourage, crumbled, the security structures collapsed with it.
Generally underfunded, systemically corrupt and allegedly infiltrated by Russian agents, during the Yanukovich presidency, the security structures’ capacity had been eroded from within. Throughout the Maidan protests and with the beginning of the armed unrest in the East, they proved unable to fulfil their basic functions. Civil society organisations set out to fill in, support or, in a way, replace state structures that had become unviable.
Double reporting lines (to the Ministry of Interior and to the regional authorities) and consequent solid connections with the latter, the lack of a state-wide rotation system and a general identification with regional rather than national identities, made the case for split loyalties on the side of the law enforcement and resulted in frequent cases of switching sides in the East.
In the Western regions, grassroots mobilisation and protesters’ attacks convinced the law enforcement agencies to take distance from the Yanukovich regime and its systematic human rights abuses already before the President’s departure. In Rivne, for example, the Head of Police declared they would not be following the orders of the regime.
Heads rolled at the top of regional administrations to reflect the changed mood in the country. New governors and heads of law-enforcement agencies were appointed at times from within the crowds of the local maidan. More frequently officials who had retired during the Yanukovich years were reinstated. Often heads of police and executive agencies, both at a regional and at a district level, were required to undergo interviews also with civil society representatives. At times, the approval of local impromptu lustration committees became binding to confirm them in the new positions.
When the revolution subsided in the spring, the rift between society and the police was still very wide. Popular mistrust in the law enforcement agencies mirrored the general lack of confidence in national and regional institutions. Ordinary citizens felt they had, and at times they were encouraged to, take security in their own hands. According to Ministry of Interior data quoted in the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks’s report following his visit to Ukraine on 4-7 February, as of 1 January, 3713 civic formations had been established in the country with the purpose of protecting public order. They comprised a total of 76 thousand members.
In a first phase, during the Maidan protests and in their immediate aftermath, the priority was to ensure law and order and prevent a deterioration of the security situation. Volunteers in self-defence organisations patrolled the streets and provided a degree of first intervention, when needed. When the police resumed its functions, self-defence volunteers imposed themselves, and were de facto invited, to participate in police activities, thus establishing the narodnyi kontrol (the civil control) that many believed essential to restore public trust in the police after Yanukovich had abandoned them.
Following the annexation of Crimea, regions like Kherson and Mykolayiv had suddenly acquired the status of border regions. The security conditions had inevitably changed and, with them, the perception of risk. Self-defence activists were welcomed by the authorities to man check points jointly with the police.
In other regions, volunteers, including also middle-class, small and medium-size entrepreneurs concerned about the impact that a deterioration of the security situation could have on their activities, participated in the protection of state and regional property. They conducted occasional special operations with the police against arms and drugs trafficking and intervened in cases of poaching. Everywhere, self-defence groups were invited by the local authorities to supervise and support the police in most of their routine daily operations.
While recognising the added value that self-defence organisations could provide in terms of restoring popular trust, regional authorities appeared ambivalent and at times sceptical about their long-term engagement. A top law-enforcement official in Rivne called for the urgent dismantling of all paramilitary structures and for the end of what he defined as the “permanent revolution”. Yet, he acknowledged the difficulties for the regional leadership to curb the authority of those who, from the street, had brought them to power.
Filling in the Gap
Travelling East-West throughout Ukraine in May-June, the feeling of an impending implosion was somehow perceptible. Although legitimately elected by Parliament, the Yatsenyuk government could barely exercise its authority throughout the country. The chain of command between the centre and the regions in the security structures was fragile. A journalist from Luhansk told the story of a National Guard battalion, which, in mid-May, had succeeded in keeping at bay pro-Russian separatists from the official buildings. They had been eventually forced to leave the city centre and camp out in the outskirts of the town, waiting for orders from Kyiv that failed to arrive and exposed to the charity of local residents for food and water provisions.
While the power of the central authorities risked fading, Kyiv tried to build a network of alliances among the emerging city-states. In an attempt to strengthen their grip, especially on the Eastern regions, authorities in Kyiv outsourced security provisions to powerful oligarchs. In Donetsk, recently appointed governor Sergei Taruta announced in March he had paid for the digging of a ditch and the building of a rampant along the Russian border. In Dnipropetrovsk, Ihor Kolomoiskyi, also appointed governor by Acting President Turchynov, set up a fund to pay salaries and benefits to voluntary militia fighters. He also bought weapons and equipment for them.
In other, less affluent regions, local authorities tried to rally local businesses and civil society forces to strengthen what many perceived as the last line of defence against a possible invasion. In an attempt to consolidate their precarious authority, governors and heads of police resurrected civil society councils, established by the law but rarely implemented until then.
They launched a charm offensive with the public. Although little had in fact changed in terms of elite composition, the new leadership intended to signal its increased openness to civil society contribution and inclusiveness in the process of decision making.
The collective sigh of relief that the first round election of President Poroshenko produced across the country was almost audible. Countering the Russian propaganda on the illegitimate junta that had plagued Turchynov’s interim term, the new president was universally seen as the only authority able to restore the country’s unity, a guarantor of a fair process, the legitimate Ukrainian representative in a peace negotiation process.
Civil Society as a New Security Actor
Maidan and its aftermath brought to the scene civil society as a new, somehow unexpected, security actor. As the continued engagement of non-governmental organisations in the debate on police reform and anti-corruption legislation, and the recent political activism of volunteer battalions commanders demonstrate, this is an actor national and regional authorities will have to reckon with in the time to come. Filling the vacuum left by weak and discredited institutions, civil society organisations have since been attempting to vocally dictate the agenda. The custodian of the Maidan spirit of reforms, civil society, in its many permutations, has vowed to stay engaged, even after the election of uncontestably legitimate authorities.
To what extent this active engagement, especially in the security sector, is compatible with democratic practices remains to be seen. A top official in Lutsk signalled as one of the main problems in the region the wide availability of weapons to the general public. In his February report the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks reminded the Ukrainian authorities that handing out police-like functions to private bodies and civic formations carries the risk of undermining rather than strengthening societal trust in the state. Such practices “distort perceptions about the police as a neutral institution established to uphold the rule of law and are highly likely to lead to the escalation of violence by exacerbating fault lines within society”.
Maidan and, after it, the on-going conflict in the East have generated an unprecedented degree of activism and potential for patriotism. One of the challenges of post-Maidan Ukraine is to create opportunities to channel these energies and build inclusive, democratic and fully accountable institutions. By doing so, the Ukrainian authorities would restore that offended sense of dignity that had prompted people to take to the streets almost a year ago and would lay the foundations for a genuine process of reconciliation between the state and its own citizens.
The author took part in a EU assessment mission through May-August. The analysis conducted in this paper and the opinions expressed herewith are solely her own and could not be attributed, in any possible way, to her employer.