bne IntelliNews -
As Ukraine moves to clean up its corrupt law enforcement structures, brash new US-style police car patrols on the streets of Kyiv are delighting some locals with the feeling of change. But they also present a neat target for oligarch-owned TV networks looking for government own-goals.
President Petro Poroshenko said in an address to the new patrolmen and women as they took their oaths that they were a "living symbol" of reforms.
"Your task is not only to fight against breach of law, but also to make people believe that reforms are inevitable, that the Ukrainian state is capable of defending itself. You are a living evidence of fundamental changes in our country," Poroshenko said on July 6.
Police reform was one of the most hyped measures introduced by ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine's Odesa region and informal leader of a contingent of Georgian reformers trying to repeat their success in Ukraine.
A female member of Saakashvili's team, former Georgian interior minister Eka Zguladze, is now Ukrainian deputy interior minister and directly in charge of building a new police force, drawing on the Georgian experience of radical change: Georgia simply fired its existing police force and appointed a new, well-paid force mostly coming from different walks of life.
Since starting work in December 2014, Zguladze has adopted much the same approach with Kyiv's 2,000 new mobile police officers, only 20% of whom have prior experience in the force, according to the interior ministry.
Constrasting sharply with the often slovenly, Soviet-style 'militia', the sight of the new police officers marching out proudly in crisp US-style uniforms, with 200 new Japanese patrol cars now on the roads, has been hailed as a sign that change is really on the way to Ukraine.
Their salary of UAH8,000-10,000 per month – around $400 – means they have one of the best government pay deals in the country, earning more than government ministers and MPs. This also ensured there was sufficient interest in signing up for the service – and hopefully means the new officers will prove to be more immune to bribes.
Kyiv’s police force is now set to be a model for reform across the country, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told journalists on July 5. "All the services will be reformed, only new services will be called police. First of all, patrol police, they will be followed by district police officers, then the criminal investigation department, then - experts. We have a very big programme ahead," Interfax quoted Avakov as saying.
However, Avakov is unlikely to be happy with plans backed by Poroshenko to eventually move the whole poliçe force out of the competence of the interior ministry. None other than Zguladze is tipped to head the new police force when it is set up, Poroshenko told parliament.
"We have started passing bills regulating reforms of the Interior Ministry. They separate forcible functions from political ones and set up a municipal guard and new police," the president said "And, by the way, I see such a person as Eka Zguladze as their future chief."
Whether average Ukrainian motorists and their cavalier driving practices (the country has one of Europe's highest road death tolls) will be greatly enamoured of non-bribable cops is also an open question. However, a longstanding grievance in the population – that fat cats driving expensive cars brush off traffic cops by flashing IDs and pulling weight – may be eradicated, if things go according to plan.
Lampoon field day
That is a big ‘if’, and is made bigger by the scrutiny being paid to the new cops by Ukraine's leading TV channels, owned by oligarchs mostly in a clinch with the government, and eager to point up a government own-goal.
Thus the country's two largest TV channels, 1+1 channel owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and Inter owned by Dmitro Firtash - have been gleefully running news items on every crashed new cop car: four so far , three in the first 24 hours, according to press secretary for the Interior Ministry in Kyiv, and a fourth on July 8 running very photogenically into the back of a bus. The Interior Ministry later ackowledged the accident was the police patrol's fault, saying it was due to "tiredness".
However, the ministry denied media reports that two police guns had been mislaid during the first 24 hours, and said the crashed cars had only damaged bumpers and could still be used for patrol.
Many of the new Kyiv police officers have accessible social network profiles, providing a field day for mischief-makers. People wasted no time in highlighting past inappropriate behaviour by the city's new pillars of the law, or to embarrass female and male officers photographed out of uniform, horsing around or even taking a shower, thereby fuelling mirth at the new force. One officer has been disciplined in connection with photos, according to the Interior Ministry.
Another novelty - the smart new black US-style police uniforms, identical to those in Georgia - have prompted a flood of Internet memeş referring to the 1980s Hollywood franchise 'Police Academy', well-known in Ukraine.
As a result, on July 8, a selection of top stories on 1+1 and Inter's newssites mocked the new traffic cops, who look to be fast becoming Kyiv's answer to the summer lull – and a welcome distraction from the country’s ongoing economic collapse and the misery of the military stalemate in East Ukraine.
Even the most enthusiastic supporters of the new reform were baffled by one aspect of the new force – that their new Toyota patrol cars donated by Japan have constantly flashing police lights, which under Ukrainian law means motorists have to pull over and cede passage.
It transpires that the reason is mundane – in Japan patrol cars have permanently flashing police lights to increase their visibility and thus so did the Japanese cars supplied to Ukraine. "We are already working on this, we are in talks with our Japanese partners to replace these cars,” Zguladze told journalists, acknowledging the flashing police lights were causing a certain "discomfort" in the population.
Other more serious points of criticism relate to the fact that the July 2 police bill has not yet been signed into law by the president, despite the new police having started work.
It also remains unclear what will happen to the thousands of former militia officers who are still in their jobs and on the government payroll, but now off the streets.
"There is a danger that the old traffic police might infect the new officers with bad habits," blogs journalist and activist Dmytro Gnap. "In my opinion, the only patrol work suitable for the old traffic cops is as sleeping policemen," he added.
Gnap had spoken with some of the old guard of traffic police, who said that they had "no idea" what was planned for them next, he wrote.
"Kyiv traffic police won't work any more. By the end of the week Kyiv traffic police loses its functions,with all their former functions fulfilled by patrol policemen," Zguladze said on July 6.
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