Regular and special riot police officers beat up a protester on Dec. 1 near the Presidential Administration building. Hundreds more were beaten and hospitalized on that day, including at least 40 journalists. (UNIAN)
Whether in their blue urban camouflage or pitch-black uniforms, their faces masked or unmasked beneath large black helmets, their presence can be intimidating.
The rubber truncheons hanging at their sides or carried in their hands as their heavyboots stomp in sync only adds to the fear factor.
“They are a ‘chip-on-your-shoulder’ class of people, certainly begrudging toward latte drinking, smartphone using… young intelligent types. They are the best and fiercest of those who made it through military training,” said Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and post-Soviet security affairs expert who has researched security forces in Russia and Ukraine.
They are the Berkut, or Golden Eagles, the special riot police of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry. Images out of Kyiv over the past week have shown them violently and indiscriminately bludgeoning masked civilians believed to be hired thugs, peaceful activists and journalists alike, paying particular attention to those with cameras and smartphones.
There are 900 of them in Kyiv, says Galeotti, and a total of 3,250 across the country. But there are thousands of other types of special forces. Some of them, especially in western Ukraine, have reportedly supported anti-government riots.
“(The Berkut) are taught and told to control the media. They are told, ‘If you see someone filming… it’s an image that could be used for propaganda, and it must be destroyed,’” Galeotti said.
“Precisely, they target media because they also want to control the images in the media, which you can’t do in this day and age,” he added.
The results of their handiwork in Kyiv have been brutal – hundreds of protesters and at least 40 journalists have been injured. At the same time more than 100 officers of special police units, including some from the Berkut, were injured in bloody clashes with protesters who exchanged blows with them on Kyiv’s Bankova Street near the presidential administration, and then by the Lenin monument on Dec. 1.
The violence that occurred there, which the Interior Ministry said was not the fault of the Berkut but was incited by some 200 masked civilians believed to be paid, was stirred by the brutal assault on peaceful demonstrators in the early morning hours of Nov. 30.
Just after 4 a.m. several hundred Berkut officers violently dispersed a group of about 400 peaceful protesters who were camped on Independence Square in central Kyiv. They were brought in specially from Crimea, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk and Cherkasy, according to results of journalistic investigations over the past few days.
Videos of the incident show the riot police indiscriminately whacking protesters and journalists with rubber batons, even kicking some in the face after they had already been knocked down. Police continued to pursue many in the group even after they’d dispersed, chasing them down and bludgeoning them in the streets. Some of them followed protesters to St. Michael’s where many had sought sanctuary from the violence.
One eyewitness told the Kyiv Post that the riot police were like “a machine cleaning the street.” Another said that the event left steps on the public square “covered in blood.” In a statement the Ministry of Interior said that protesters were to be blamed for provoking the actions of the Berkut. A Kyiv police spokeswoman told the Kyiv Post that the protesters had damaged equipment being used to erect the city’s Christmas tree. The event sparked international outrage.
Kyiv Police Chief Valeriy Koriak admitted to ordering the attack on Nov. 30. He tendered his resignation on Dec. 1, but it was not accepted by the time Kyiv Post went to print. Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko said he had no intention to resign, though.
It is unclear who exactly gave the order for Berkut to attack. Speculation ranges from President Viktor Yanukovych and Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, to the possibility that it was Andriy Klyuyev in Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, who may have in turn been told by Kremlin lackey and pal of Russian President Vladimir Putin Viktor Medvedchuk to crackdown on the demonstration.
The press services of Yanukovych, Zakharchenko, Klyuyev and Medvedchuk did not respond to requests for comments.
Whatever the case, the Nov. 30 Berkut assault is the most blatant case of non-lethal police brutality in Ukraine in recent memory.
Kyiv’s chief doctor of emergencies Anatoliy Vershygora said that 35 people were admitted to area emergency rooms with injuries suffered during the attack. Scores more took sanctuary at nearby St. Michael’s monastery, where they were treated for less serious wounds.
Human rights activist Yevhen Zakharov told the Kyiv Post on Nov. 30 that “police have never attacked peaceful demonstrators at such a large scale with so many people hospitalized.”
“There were fights between protesters in 2001, during the Ukraine Without (ex-President Leonid) Kuchma protests, but not one-sided attacks like this morning on such a big scale,” he said.
Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland called on the Ukrainian government to hold a thorough investigation into the dispersal of the demonstration on Nov. 30. “All violence has to be stopped. All sides have to do the utmost for this,” he said on Dec. 3.
Human Rights Watch asked that authorities also make sure police stop assaulting peaceful protesters and hold those responsible to account.
Outrage over both the Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 incidences of violence spurred Zakharchenko on Dec. 4 to order law enforcement authorities to refrain from using force on participants of peaceful protests, Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.
“Rally organizers are responsible for organizing and holding events and their consequences as well,” Zakharchenko added, according to the news agency.
Taking protesters to task, Kyiv’s Shevchenkivsky District Court as of Dec. 5 had decided to detain for two months 10 protesters who are suspected of inciting the mass riot on Bankova Street near the presidential administration on Dec. 1, Kyiv prosecutor’s spokeswoman Yana Sobolevska, told Interfax-Ukraine.
There have been no arrests of Berkut officers involved in the Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 incidents, but police received 26 reports about journalists being beaten during the incidents and criminal cases were opened in all of them, “most being submitted to the public prosecutor’s office, while two are being investigated by Ukraine’s Interior Ministry,” reads a police report, citing Oleh Tatarov, deputy chief of the Foreign Ministry’s investigative department.
Having lost faith in the justice system, protesters on their own have identified and published the personal information of Berkut officers, including a man they believe is responsible for the brutal beating of a Reuters photojournalist. Another man who heads Kyiv’s Berkut unit and may be responsible, protesters say, for inciting violence between police forces and radical protesters on Bankova Street has also been identified.
Protesters and activists say the man in a video leading a front-end loader to police lines in an attempt to break through is none other than Col. Sergei Kusyuk, who was seen in another video leading Berkut officers. The video evidence has inspired numerous other theories as to who was behind the orders given to the Berkut and why that person or persons gave them.
It is possible that the person responsible for giving orders to the Berkut that day and the exact orders themselves may never be brought to light. But Galeotti, the New York University professor, says he has a pretty good idea of what they could have been.
“Firstly, (the Berkut) are to obey orders,” Galeotti said. But as opposed to police and the National Guard, “the Berkut are much quicker to turn to rubber clubs and blunt force. They are much less constrained.”
From the onset of riots, the Berkut target the mob’s leaders, according to Galeotti. “They focus on those who are egging on the crowd, those who would hurl the first stones, throw the first punches and incite violence from others in the crowd,” he said.
He says that Berkut officers are also taught not to let the mob get momentum. “On (Dec. 1, in front of the Presidential Administration) it went so badly because they didn’t control momentum,” Galeotti said. “In that case, they will be extra keen to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
When push comes to shove, Galeotti said, people are willing to do things they might not normally do. “When things go badly for (the Berkut), it’s in their nature – it is human nature – to overcompensate.”
Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.