Former National Police Chief Khatia Dekanoidze had a challenging task: to reform one of the world’s most corrupt and lawless police systems in just one year.
The Georgian-born former official became head of Ukraine’s National Police in November 2015 and stepped down in November 2016, citing political interference and a lack of power to bring about change.
She said in an interview with the Kyiv Post that she accomplished her task to launch reform by vetting the police and ousting corrupt and unprofessional officers, though a lot more has yet to be done. But critics argue that the reform has failed, with a corrupt old guard spearheaded by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov striking back with vengeance and restoring business as usual.
Avakov has denied accusations of sabotaging Dekanoidze’s planned changes.
Dekanoidze admitted that the country’s leadership had tried to use her and other reformers as a facade while perpetuating corruption.
“What this country lacks is a single-minded and tough political team that will be strongly committed to radical reform,” she said. “There are so many stakeholders, and there is no single team interested in eliminating corruption.”
Dekanoidze, with her sociable and informal manner, switched between Russian, English and Georgian. She contrasts sharply with the rigid old police cadres typical of former Soviet countries.
After an exhausting and frustrating year in government service, she said she was taking care of her own personal and health problems, and briefly interrupted the interview to talk with her son over the phone.
Skeptics say that the resignation of another Georgian-born reformer, Ekaterina Zguladze-Glucksmann, in May and Dekanoidze’s exit are the last nails in the coffin of police reform, with no one left at the Interior Ministry to push for change.
Their resignation is part of the exodus of at least 23 top reformers from the Ukrainian government earlier this year, with many of them disillusioned and frustrated with continued corruption and sabotage of change.
Contrast with Georgia
One of Ukraine’s biggest problems is that the government itself is not reformist, while reformers are relegated to lower-level positions and are then used as scapegoats when reform fails, Dekanoidze argued.
“I’m often angry with the fact that government is divided into reformers and anti-reformers,” she said. “As soon as the government is split into reformers and the government itself, it’s a problem.”
It is also very difficult to pass laws in Ukraine that bring about substantial change, Dekanoidze said.
“If there is a problem, no one is solving it,” she said. “They think that only more regulation and bureaucracy will solve it.”
She said that she had been unsuccessfully asking the Verkhovna Rada to pass a bill to crack down on organized crime and the mafia for a year.
“Ukraine is heaven for thieves from Russia and Georgia,” Dekanoidze added.
She said that Ukraine contrasted sharply with her experience in Georgia, where she was rector of the country’s Police Academy from 2007 to 2012 and education and science minister in 2012 under then-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
There was more political will in Georgia, and the authorities made radical decisions, she argued.
“We had the luxury of having a single team,” she said. “We had a president who made very tough decisions.”
As a result, a generation has emerged in Georgia that doesn’t know corruption, Dekanoidze said. “My 18-year old son often asks me what corruption is,” she added.
Dekanoidze said she had clashed with the Interior Ministry’s old guard, which criticized her for firing “professionals” amid broader efforts to give Ukraine an effective police force.
“The old generals were saying: who are you? You were not born or raised here,” she said.
The arrest of Vladyslav Pustovar, acting chief of Cherkasy Oblast’s police, on corruption charges in March triggered a major backlash from old cadres, further worsening their attitude towards Dekanoidze.
“You can’t even imagine what this caused in the system,” she said. “They hated the internal security department (charged with fighting graft).”
Pustovar was arrested when allegedly trying to give a $2,000 bribe and vouchers for 400 liters of gasoline to a deputy chief of the National Police in exchange for assistance in his subordinates’ efforts to make it through the vetting process.
Among supporters of the old guard, she named Viktor Karol, head of parliament’s subcommittee for law enforcement and a member of the Poroshenko Bloc. He has repeatedly criticized Dekanoidze.
Clash with civil society
The cleansing of the police from corrupt and dishonest officials has met with fierce resistance.
In June, several civil society groups, including AutoMaidan and volunteers helping the military, withdrew from the police vetting process to protest against what they saw as sabotage of the reform by Avakov.
They argued that Avakov’s loyalists had taken over the vetting process and were protecting corrupt groups, while independent civic activists had been blocked from influencing the revamping attempt.
Eventually, only 5,656 police officers, or about 6 percent of the police force, were fired as a result of the vetting procedure. Of these, many have been reinstated by the courts.
Civic activists have also accused the Interior Ministry of manipulating vetting figures, and urged it to publish lists of those fired. Dekanoidze said she had been planning to do that before her resignation but did not know whether the ministry would publish the data now.
She praised critics of the reform who are pushing for radical measures but added that it is often difficult to replace discredited police officials due to a lack of competent candidates.
“The main reason is a lack of cadres,” she said. “Nobody has nurtured a new law enforcement leadership… We were not able to replace 90 percent of regional police chiefs.”
She said she hoped regional police chiefs would be replaced with new, untainted people – possibly patrol police officers – in about a year.
“If this doesn’t happen, it means the reform will have ultimately failed,” she said. “A return [of the corrupt bureaucracy] is always possible – even after the EuroMaidan Revolution. People were killed there. Who would have thought then that Ukraine had a right to drag its feet [on reform]?”
But Transparency International’s recent ranking shows that little has changed in Ukraine since the revolution, she argued. Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the fifth most corrupt country in Europe and Central Asia in November.
One of the most controversial police officials is Valery Lyuty, who was appointed by Dekanoidze as head of Cherkassy Oblast’s police in November. Local activists staged major protests against Lyuty’s appointment, burning tires and even kicking him out of the police headquarters.
Dekanoidze told the Kyiv Post she had appointed Lyuty because he had been praised by some activists but decided to suspend the appointment after the protests.
But after her resignation, Avakov appointed Lyuty nonetheless on Dec. 26 in what critics see as the comeback of disgraced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt bureaucracy.
Lyuty used to be a top official of the old traffic police, known as one of the nation’s most corrupt institutions. The Soviet-style traffic police was replaced with the new patrol police in 2015, modeled after Western police forces.
Lyuty was also an advisor to Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes in 2013 and was allegedly involved in repressing EuroMaidan protesters in the city. He was also the police chief of Kryvy Rih in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in 2015, where he was accused of helping Mayor Yury Vilkul rig local elections. Both Kernes and Vilkul are former members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Lyuty, who denies accusations of wrongdoing, scored 14 out of 60 in a general knowledge test during vetting and was recommended for demotion.
Another controversial official is Oleksiy Takhtai, a former deputy of Avakov who became the Interior Ministry’s state secretary in a competition held under Ukraine’s new civil service law. A person resembling Takhtai is seen negotiating a deal to sell sand in video footage shot by the Security Service of Ukraine and leaked onto the Internet last year.
Critics, including Health Minister Ulana Suprun and Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan, have dismissed ongoing competitions for state secretary jobs as rigged procedures used by corrupt vested interests to impose their representatives on government ministries.
Dekanoidze called the competitions a “disaster” and said that more rigorous oversight is needed over the process.
Meanwhile, she told the Glavkom news site in November that the Presidential Administration had interfered with the National Police and imposed yet another dubious official, Anton Shevtsov, as head of Vinnytsa Oblast’s police. Dekanoidze fired Shevtsov in March after evidence of him having pro-Kremlin views emerged.
The Presidential Administration did not respond to a request for comment.
Another obstacle to improving the police is a lack of change in Ukraine’s notoriously lawless and corrupt prosecution service and judiciary, Dekanoidze argued.
The National Police’s internal security department initiated about 1,000 criminal cases during her stint at the police but only 203 of those were punished due to prosecutors’ inaction, she said.
“This is a result of fake reform at the prosecutor’s office,” she said. “Even now, nobody understands where the prosecution service is going.”
Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko has denied accusations of blocking changes.
Plans for the future
Dekanoidze said that she would not seek to become a civil servant again, but she has not decided yet whether she would pursue a political career.
She is an ally of Saakashvili, who resigned as governor of Odesa Oblast and launched a new political party in November.
Dekanoidze said that she would remain in Ukraine and could get involved in social and education projects, including the training of “a new law enforcement elite.”