It was one of the most visible measures of the post-Euromaidan reform programme, but the competence of Ukraine’s new police force has recently been called into question by reports that the national crime rate has practically doubled over the last two years. The statistics add fuel to growing criticism of the government’s attempts to turn the country around.
Public concern over Ukraine’s stuttering economy has already taken the shine off some of the more effective reforms introduced by President Petro Poroshenko since he came to power in 2014 on a wave of protests that ousted the Yanukovych regime. With one of the broadest mandates for domestic reforms in Ukrainian history, the Poroshenko administration has chalked up a number of successes, notably greater transparency in public procurement. But polls indicate that Ukrainians have been far from impressed with their government’s record to date, largely because there has been little commensurate improvement in living standards.
The dismissal of the former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the appointment of a new cabinet in April might have muted some criticism of the authorities, but not for long. Poroshenko’s approval ratings are amongst their lowest since he came to office, while two-thirds of Ukrainians polled in July felt the country was heading in the wrong direction. An article published earlier in August by the respected magazine Novoe Vremya drew attention to the spiralling national crime figures that cast a shadow over the National Police of Ukraine, known as the Politsiya, which was set up with great fanfare in July 2015.
According to the Ukrainian state statistics service, the number of serious crimes recorded annually rose from 13,000 to 21,500 between 2013 and 2015, with the latter figure excluding Crimea and the Donbas region, large parts of which are being held by separatists. Similarly, over the same period, burglaries increased from 17,000 to almost 22,000. The Ukrainian media have reported that the problem is worst in Kyiv, with the crime rate increasing by 45% over the first three months of 2016. Some alarmist articles have compared the current situation in Ukraine with that in the 1990s, a period synonymous in the public mind with lawlessness and a dramatic collapse in living standards. While levels of trust in the new force have improved according to recent surveys, its effectiveness will ultimately be determined by public perception of safety – and by that measure, its performance leaves a lot to be desired.
The Politsiya replaced the Militsiya, a force which clearly required deep reform. By the time of the Euromaidan revolution, it had become strongly associated with the brutality and selective justice of the Yanukovych regime. Notorious for acting with impunity, Ukrainians have long understood that it was best to simply avoid the Militsiya. In spite of indications that the new police force has raised public confidence in law enforcement, with emergency calls reportedly increasing, the new crime statistics are a blow to the fragile government.
Some have sought to defend the Politsiya by pointing to other factors for the upsurge in crime. The minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, has been critical of the so-called Savchenko Law for swelling the ranks of criminals. Passed in December 2015, the law – named after national hero Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian air force pilot imprisoned in Russia and released in May – was intended to reform custodial sentences by including time spent in pre-trial detention as part of a convict’s prison term. In Ukraine, as in Russia, suspects often find themselves sitting in cells for month before their cases come to court. While the reform is in many ways commendable, since December it has seen over 6,000 convicts released from Ukraine’s prisons, according to statistics from the Ukrainian prison service. In addition, the mass dismissal of former officers from the disbanded police force has created fertile conditions for a rise in criminality.
The head of the national police, Khatiya Dekanoidze, has attributed the alarming crime statistics to Ukraine’s poor economic performance since 2012 as well as the ongoing war in the Donbas that has strengthened organised crime groups and increased the availability of arms. Dekanoidze said the latest figures reflect the new force’s attempts to provide more accurate assessment of crime levels and has praised the Politsiya for its overall effectiveness. The police chief also claimed that the reform had not yet been fully implemented because old Militsiya units still operational in certain regions were working against the new force.
As the most visible of the reforms undertaken to date, the success of the Politsiya is key to reversing the public’s perception of the current administration. Like any rise in crime, the underlying causes are multifaceted and it is difficult not to sympathise with new recruits having to deal with a society undergoing turbulent change. But the fear is that unless the new force improves its record quickly, or perhaps notches up a few high profile successes, public anger may prompt the government to dilute its reform programme in order to focus on security.
Jonathan Melliss is a senior analyst at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.