Democracy Lab

Ukraine's Public Enemy Number One: The Police

Why Ukraine's brutal riot police are one of the biggest obstacles on the path to reform.

It's been two months since the start of Ukraine's Euromaidan protests, and things are only getting worse. Over the past week, Ukraine has witnessed some of the worst violence it's seen since gaining independence in 1991. In response to the passage of a series of laws limiting civic freedoms, protesters rallied with renewed fervor in Kiev's central square to continue a conflict that has spiraled into violence some commentators are calling "medieval." Hundreds have been injured, and at least four have been killed.

Ukraine's special riot police unit, known as Berkut ("golden eagle" in Ukrainian), has played a prominent role in violence against demonstrators. Over the past two months, President Viktor Yanukovych has scaled up Berkut's protest management tactics, ordering the unit to disperse the crowds using water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. After Berkut's initial efforts to disperse the protests proved futile, the government resorted to more extreme methods to intimidate the crowd. On Jan. 23, according to protesters, the police opened fire against the crowds for the first time since Euromaidan began two months ago.

This week, the controversy surrounding the group intensified with the release of evidence directly implicating Berkut in abuse. A Ukrainian photographer released images that, he said, documented his wounds after a severe beating at the hands of Berkut officers.  A video has also emerged that shows Berkut officers manhandling a young male protester in their custody. The man, who has been stripped naked, stands in the snow while police slap him around.

Despite Ukrainians' growing political awareness and blossoming civil society, Berkut remains one of the least reformed public institutions. If Ukraine is to embark on the path to greater democratization, its political leadership must make police reform a top priority. The police must learn how to protect Ukraine's increasingly diverse populace as they engage in new types of political dissent. A democratically reformed police with strong public oversight can safeguard political processes, including mass protests, and usher Ukraine into a peaceful future. The police forces, including Berkut, must be accountable to citizens and subject to the rule of law -- not to the political regime.

While other security and law enforcement agencies have undergone reform in the years since the Orange revolution, Ukraine's police remain largely unchanged. That makes for a stark contrast with some of Ukraine's closest neighbors, such as Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic states, where police forces have experienced substantial change. In Ukraine, in fact, all of the notorious elements of the Soviet police remain intact: the traffic police, the militarized wing of the police, and local law-enforcement units that work on the community level. The police remain punitive and corrupt. Instead of serving the citizenry to prevent crime, the Ukrainian police use force to advance their own material interests, routinely employing torture tactics to force confessions. The police are just one part of an elaborate mechanism within the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), the main government department responsible for internal security, that works to extract bribes from the populace. Top officials also benefit from this blatant corruption, and are also able to collect taxes imposed on their personnel's salaries. Other countries in the region have established public oversight over the police's work and have engaged civil society groups in designing police reform programs with public safety in mind. Ukraine has yet to undertake such a process.

Critics of President Yanukovych have justifiably accused his administration of allowing corruption to flourish. They accuse him of disregarding democratic institutions and leading the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction.

The 5,000-man-strong Berkut division is the best-trained riot police unit in the former Soviet states. Though it is officially responsible for public safety, fighting organized crime, and escorting prisoners, Berkut has won a reputation as a deeply politicized body that is accustomed to protecting the political regime. Its loyalty to the ruling regime grew even deeper after Yanukovych appointed Vitaly Zakharchenko, a close ally and former police officer, to head the MIA. Since Zakharchenko's appointment, matters have gone from bad to worse. Although the Ukrainian police have always been closely tied to its political masters, it has never before used firearms against civilian protesters. (Bizarrely, it is precisely the group's brutal reputation that makes it popular among pro-Putin Russians, who see the protesters in Kiev as lackeys of the West. "Bandits on one side, fascists on the other. Hold on, Berkut!" tweeted Konstantin Rykov, a famous Kremlin online apologist.)

Today's Ukrainian police are brutal and unresponsive not least because they are estranged from the population they are supposed to serve. Police chiefs rarely come from the communities in which they work, making them detached and uninterested in the needs of the people in their districts. In some parts of the country the police resemble a mafia-style organization that intimidates local populations with impunity. Just last June, two policemen kidnapped a 29-year-old woman in Vradiyevka and drove her into the woods of a surrounding town, where they brutally beat her, fracturing her skull, and took turns raping her. This heinous act sparked rage in the community not just because of its brutality, but also because the resident police department refused to take action against the officers responsible.

In the past decade, Ukraine has made several attempts to reform the police -- but none of these attempts responded to the public's needs, partly because no effort was made to incorporate any views from domestic or international experts. While serving as ministers of internal affairs under former president Viktor Yushchenko, Vasyl Tsushko and Yuriy Lutsenko (now a leading member of the opposition), undertook several initiatives to establish external oversight that led to positive changes in the behavior of police personnel. Lutsenko assigned human rights experts to monitor senior MIA officials and dispatched special mobile public oversight groups to assess MIA facilities across the country. This led to a significant drop in cases of police torture. 

But though these reforms won praise from civil society groups and the international community, they were abruptly halted after Yanukovych came to power in 2010. Working with his close ally, Vitaly Zakharchenko, Yanukovych purged all human rights ombudsmen from the ranks of the MIA. The new president used the ministry to protect his government rather than the civil liberties of protesters on the streets of Kiev. By siding with the regime, the MIA could continue to benefit from corruption and count on further political patronage from the man at the top.

But as the Euromaidan protests continue, it's clear that the public is becoming increasingly impatient to see genuine police reform. The latest police actions only seem to have galvanized the protesters. (In the photo above, a woman hits a Berkut officer with a cross as he attempts to detain a protester during clashes on Jan. 22.) Demonstrators responded to last week's violence with violence, hurling Molotov cocktails, bricks, and other projectiles at riot police. (According to the government, 195 police officers have sustained injuries in the standoff with protesters.) When activist Tetiana Chornovol was assaulted by police last month, she became a symbol of the lawlessness and authoritarianism in Yanukovych's Ukraine. And when police attacked Lutsenko earlier this month, the news prompted protesters to rally once again. Now Kiev's protesters are unanimous in their calls for police reform. Reforming Berkut will likely become a central political issue once the Euromaidan crisis is over.

Civil society groups -- including legal research and policy institutions, human rights groups, volunteer organizations that monitor the traffic police, and individual activists who have fallen victim to police brutality -- have already developed a number of initiatives to transform the forces. The Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors, for instance, works to educate citizens about their rights, teaching them how to respond to and report police abuse. The association also investigates and publicizes areas where police abuses are particularly widespread, and keeps track of which people are the most likely to be maltreated by the police. Other groups, such as the Center for Political and Legal Reforms, focus on the law, providing advice on the legislative process to government officials and lawmakers, including background research on prospective bills and reviews of existing legislation. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights regularly addresses law-enforcement issues, often in collaboration with experts and humanitarian groups. Individual activists are also using their experiences with police abuse to develop recommendations on incremental changes that might reduce the frequency of brutality.

Today, the loudest calls for reform are coming from the Euromaidan. Protesters are united in their efforts to hold state power in check, and are on their way to making police reform Ukraine's number one issue. A reformed police -- accountable to the public, not the regime -- will safeguard Ukraine's path toward greater democratization.

ANATOLIY STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Aid Amnesia

Jeffrey Sachs has gone down the rabbit hole on the aid debate. He doesn't even remember what it was all about.

In the latest installment of this endless and tiresome debate over aid, Jeff Sachs struck back this week at my recent article entitled the "Aid Debate is Over." (Spoiler: In the piece I argue that he lost the argument.) What's remarkable, however, is that Sachs' recent retaliation in Foreign Policy takes very little from his previous writings about aid. These omissions seem to imply his own retreat from the original debate about Big Aid and Big Results.

My column was a review of Nina Munk's new book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, which concludes that Sachs' attempts to solve poverty have been an aid and development disappointment. My column also referred to the claim Sachs made in his 2005 book, The End of Poverty, and in other writings (such as the U.N. Millennium Project report), that a "big push" of aid could achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which include cutting the poverty rate in half by 2015. In his response, Sachs fails to mention Nina Munk, her book, the Millennium Development Goals, the big push, or even his own Millennium Villages Project.

Sachs' Millennium Villages are a set of model communities across Africa that have been targeted for intensive infusions of aid to improve health, agriculture, infrastructure, and education. Munk reports that Sachs explained to her (as he had already eloquently outlined in The End of Poverty) that the Millennium Villages were meant to show that "we have enough on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren't dying of their poverty" (italics mine). He told her the villages would show that "there's absolutely nothing wrong with African agriculture that can't be quickly improved.... You can improve yields by a factor of two or three ... from one growing season to the next ... easy!" (italics mine again).

In his book, Sachs explained that the poorest people in the world are in a trap that they cannot escape on their own. In order to break this poverty trap, he suggests striking at its heart through "targeted investments backed by donor aid." He posits that the "benefits would be astounding" if aid-financed investments were to focus on agricultural inputs, basic health and education, electric power, transport, communication, drinking water, and sanitation. But, he further stresses, for aid to work, it needs to be fighting on every front: "[S]uccess in any single area, whether in health, or education, or farm productivity, depends on investments across the board." His U.N. report called such an aid program the "Big Push."

After such an aid program, Sachs' book predicts, "the tremendous dynamism of self-sustaining economic growth can take hold. Economic development works. It can be successful. It tends to build on itself." In the U.N. report, he further expressed confidence how aid can achieve the Millennium Development Goals: "the specific technologies for achieving the Goals are known. What is needed is to apply them at scale." The report identified 17 "Quick Wins" that would "see major results within three or fewer years." Again in his book, Sachs said poor farmers in Africa "could triple the food yields per hectare and quickly end chronic hunger." The cost of all this is apparently well within the capabilities of existing aid commitments of rich countries. So, if aid is appropriately applied, "success in ending the poverty trap will be much easier than it appears."

In an effort to provide proof for the all these ideas, Sachs implemented the Millennium Village Project, while at the same advocating the immediate adoption of nation-wide Big Aid programs in every poor country to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Munk contradicted Sachs' prediction of easy victories against poverty with her tale of struggle and woe in the Millennium Villages, which yielded some accomplishments but mostly disappointments. Apart from rooting out structural problems, the villages are plagued by more mundane matters. Water wells, for example, break down, get fixed, but stubbornly refuse to stay fixed. Even when agricultural yields did increase, villagers found themselves with a maize surplus for which they had neither a market nor storage capacity. Critics have piled on, arguing that Sachs is failing to properly evaluate his micro-interventions in the Millennium Villages. Without this, they cannot serve as effective evidence for his stance on aid.

Today, Sachs' critics do not even mention his original claim that aid will unleash the tremendous dynamism of self-sustaining growth. Does this mean that his original claims are so implausible that they're not worth mentioning or refuting?

I didn't anticipate that Sachs himself would now also join the loud silence on his original vision for Big Aid. (Sachs does mention faster growth in Africa and a fall of 17 percent in Africa's poverty rate, but somehow ignores that this falls grossly short of the Millennium Development goal -- which he embraced -- of 50 percent poverty rate reduction by 2015. The United Nations reports that Africa will not meet this goal.) Apparently there is nobody left, not even Sachs himself, to defend the case for aid as the engine of development in the poorest countries, where "success in ending the poverty trap" turned out to be "much easier than it appears." It is in this sense that the debate really is over.

If aid is not the engine of development, then what is it good for? If aid is not the engine of development, then what is the engine? Aid and development are now separate topics with separate debates. Aid can do many other good things even if it cannot drive development, and it is to this smaller aid debate that Sachs devotes his new column, making many sensible points on health aid.

As I said, I am tired of the endless back-and-forth between Jeff Sachs and me on aid (as are many others), which has been going on for more than eight years.

On one hand, Sachs has said that aid can end poverty, but in his FP piece he says that it isn't a driver of development. It sounds like Sachs and I both need to move on. For myself, I'd prefer participating in the bigger debates on development. Why does the development discussion show so much indifference to the most basic political and economic rights of the poor? Could the "benevolent dictators" such as the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia -- who Jeff Sachs often praises (he even thanked Meles in the acknowledgements to The End of Poverty) -- be the problem and not the solution? Don't we see individual rights in our own societies as both desirable in themselves and how we escaped our own poverty? Why do we see things so differently for poor societies?

These questions are a lot more important than the now passé aid debate. I think I might even publish a whole book on them.

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