Thursday, July 24, 2014


Ukraine

Reviled In Kyiv, Heroes In The East, Berkut Veterans Lick Their Wounds

Elite "Berkut" troops take a break during a confrontation with Ukrainian protesters (file photo).
Elite "Berkut" troops take a break during a confrontation with Ukrainian protesters (file photo).
By Tom Balmforth
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Yury Sivonenko bristles with pride at the elite police force he was handpicked to train 25 years ago. Known as the Berkut, or “Golden Eagles,” they were a special police unit geared for crowd control and special operations against organized crime.

But as these officers under oath became the sword and shield of choice for Viktor Yanukovych amid a street uprising, the Berkut became known for something else: brutal repression.

In Kyiv, the Berkut are reviled as the villains of the EuroMaidan drama. But in the Russian speaking south and east, the view is very different.

Sivonenko -- a former Berkut captain, hand-to-hand combat trainer, and member of its veterans association -- was one of many who met the local officers returning to Donetsk after Yanukovych fled the capital.

"We saw how they looked when they returned from Kyiv. They were dirty, all of them burnt, wounded. Not one of them was whole," Sivonenko says. "They were gray and exhausted. They left [as] young guys -- 23, 25 years old -- and came back 40-year-old men with deathly tired eyes, but still not vanquished. We greeted them as heroes.”
Berkut special forces storm "Euromaidan" barricades on Maidan Square in Kyiv on December 11.
Berkut special forces storm "Euromaidan" barricades on Maidan Square in Kyiv on December 11.

From the spilt blood and trauma of EuroMaidan, rival narratives of heroes and villains are taking shape. And if for the Maidan’s supporters, the heroes are the scores who perished in what they describe as a struggle for freedom, pro-Russians in the east laud the officers who carried out their orders and stood shoulder-to-shoulder for weeks to defend the country’s elected president.

In eastern Donetsk -- as in Crimea, where many consider the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych illegitimate -- former Berkut officers address crowds of pro-Russian demonstrators who chant: "Berkut! Berkut!"

Through the prism of these narratives much can be understood of the widening gulf between some Ukrainians and Russians who have lived side-by-side for decades. 

'No One Asks Why'

Many in Ukraine and abroad were shocked at the Berkut's acts of brutality. One widely circulated video depicts a Maidan protester stripped naked in sub-zero temperatures being abused by Berkut officers.

But veterans of the Berkut like Aleksandr, a native of Donetsk who declines to give his last name, insist there are two sides to this story. "For some reason, no one asks why they Berkut acted like this," he says.

Berkut veterans and their supporters point to dozens of videos of protesters with mace and metal chains, many of whom were hurling Molotov cocktails. They say they know relatives of Berkut officers who received threatening messages during the unrest.

And yet now the veterans think post-Maidan retribution will be meted out selectively to suit the new authorities in Kyiv.
A Berkut troop on guard in central Kyiv holds a cup of tea provided by protesters early in the unrest, which began in late November.
A Berkut troop on guard in central Kyiv holds a cup of tea provided by protesters early in the unrest, which began in late November.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on February 25 liquidated the Berkut on the grounds they had "discredited themselves completely before the people." Aleksandr has always oozed a corporate pride for the Berkut; now he feels betrayed by the state they fought to preserve.

"It's simple betrayal. How else can you describe it if in its 25 years of existence, the Berkut carried out all its orders?" Aleksandr asks. "Now they want to get rid of it because someone has decided that they didn’t act correctly. And then we arrive back to the question: It wasn’t correct to act like that in Kyiv, but if it happens here then it is correct?"

Sivonenko and Aleksandr both say they believe the Kyiv authorities now want to use Berkut's refashioned successor to disperse pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Ukraine. Instead of being liquidated, they say, former Berkut personnel have been assigned to a new "Police Detachment for Special Purposes."

They say officers were ordered in Donetsk to "act harshly" with pro-Russia demonstrators who last week seized the regional-administration building twice, calling for a referendum to give the Donbas region more autonomy. The riot police refused, according to Sivonenko and Aleksandr.

'We Had A Country And Now We Don't'

In Sivonenko’s office, which is festooned with sports awards, the portrait a 23-year-old deceased police officer perches on a filing cabinet. From behind his desk, glasses on his nose, Sivonenko grimly reads out the pages-long latest on the medical condition of wounded officers. 

Seven Berkut officers were killed in the conflict in Kyiv. From Donetsk, nine were wounded and two remain in critical condition with bullet wounds to the lung and head.
Armed masked men who describe themselves as members of Ukraine's disbanded elite "Berkut" police force at a checkpoint under Russian national and Russian naval flags on a Crimean highway.
Armed masked men who describe themselves as members of Ukraine's disbanded elite "Berkut" police force at a checkpoint under Russian national and Russian naval flags on a Crimean highway.

Sivonenko says the officers who served in Kyiv are not ready to be deployed again; he says they need rehabilitation after the "three months of hell" they endured.

Diminutive but with an athletic, bulky frame, Sivonenko was handpicked in the late 1980s to train the Berkut because of his prowess in hand-to-hand combat.

Sivonenko’s friend Igor, a Donetsk native who declines to give his last name, says he wants autonomy for the Donbas region. He sums up the mood of many Russian speakers in the east who say they now find themselves sidelined observers of their own political fate.

"We had a country and now we don’t," Igor says, "The whole of Ukraine couldn’t care less about the east. Are we citizens or not? They insult our compatriots. They are heroes, and we’re cattle -- working cattle who contribute to the budget."

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