Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ukraine: Street Rebel Becomes Country's Top Policeman

Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko (left) and President Viktor Yushchenko (AFP) The appointment of Yuriy Lutsenko as Ukraine's interior minister was probably the most surprising cabinet choice made by President Viktor Yushchenko on 4 February, shortly after the Ukrainian parliament overwhelmingly voted to approve Yuliya Tymoshenko as the new prime minister. How did Lutsenko go from leading demonstrations against former President Leonid Kuchma to heading law enforcement in Ukraine?

Prague, 11 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's Interior Ministry, a mammoth organization employing some 500,000 people, will now be headed not only by its first civilian minister, but also by a person who has thus far not had any significant experience in law enforcement.

To make matters even worse for Yuriy Lutsenko, the Interior Ministry, which is tasked with fighting endemic corruption in the country, is proverbially corrupt itself. Lutsenko will have to start his cabinet career with a radical cleanup of his workplace, which will hardly make him popular with his co-workers.

Until now, the 41-year-old Lutsenko has been primarily known as an opposition politician and a passionate leader of antigovernment street protests in 2000 and 2001 conducted under the slogan "Ukraine Without Kuchma," and those in November and December 2004 that have come to be known as the Orange Revolution.

Beside Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, Lutsenko was one of the most popular figures addressing orange-clad crowds from the rostrum on Independence Square, or Maydan Nezalezhnosti, in Kyiv. Pro-Yushchenko supporters dubbed him a "field commander" of the Orange Revolution, for his smooth coordination of revolutionary crowd movements between the presidential administration headquarters and the parliament building in Kyiv. Some also called him the "Maydan disc jockey," apparently for his ability to entertain demonstrators with a good joke or a story between the waves of rock music that rolled from the Independence Square stage when politicians were not making speeches.
"I do not want to see corrupt authorities. I do not want to know the price for [obtaining the position of] police chief in the Donetsk region because nobody will pay that price." -- President Viktor Yushchenko

Lutsenko's inclination to present his contribution to the Orange Revolution in an amusing manner was reflected in an interview he gave to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 21 December, five days before the repeat election between Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

"Naturally, we have pressured Kuchma and continue to pressure him by blocking the presidential administration building and, primarily, by blocking his suburban residence," Lutsenko said. "It is in a forest, under our supervision. We are afraid that Yanukovych may attack [former President Leonid Kuchma], so we are guarding him a little bit."

Lutsenko is an electronics engineer by education. He joined the Socialist Party in 1991. From 1994 to 1996, he served in the regional administration in Rivne, his native city in northwestern Ukraine. From 1997 to 1998, he served as Ukraine's deputy science minister, and until 1999 as an aide to Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko.

In December 2000, he was one of the leaders of the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" street-protest campaign. Some Ukrainian commentators humorously note that 2001 was a period when Lutsenko, who led protesters against cordons of riot police in full gear, came closest to the problems that need to be tackled, as well as presented, by the Interior Ministry.

In 2002 and 2003, Lutsenko was sporadically involved in disabling the electronic voting system in parliament, when the opposition could not find a different way to prevent the pro-government coalition from passing a bill. Lutsenko acknowledged in an interview last year that disabling the system was easy for him, not only because he was trained in electronics, but also because of his experience during his compulsory military service in a communications unit of the KGB troops of the former Soviet Union.

The Orange Revolution popularized Lutsenko as a sort of folk hero and jester. But most Ukrainian analysts concede that Lutsenko is vigorous, ambitious, open-minded, and knowledgeable, and that he will have few problems either turning himself into a demanding and purpose-oriented bureaucrat, or learning the basics needed to run the Interior Ministry.

The insightful, thoughtful side of Lutsenko can be seen in a perception about the Orange Revolution that he shared with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

"There have been two tactics for developing the revolutionary situation that was originated by the Independent Square [rallies]," Lutsenko said. "The first one, which has been urged by Yuliya Tymoshenko and other people, is to take a revolutionary path, capture [government] offices, proclaim Yushchenko's victory, and appoint a revolutionary cabinet of ministers. I have opposed such a tactic and supported an evolutionary development of events, which we are actually witnessing today. It is also a victorious tactic, even if somewhat longer. What is important, it is definitely a bloodless tactic and an elegant one, as Yushchenko says."

Lutsenko's first personnel decisions after taking office were to sack General Serhiy Popkov, deputy interior minister and commander of the interior troops, as well as Major General Hennadiy Heorhiyenko, head of the Interior Ministry's Traffic Police Department. According to Ukrainian and foreign media reports, Popkov was on the verge of bringing special-police troops to Kyiv in late December to break up the Orange Revolution. Popkov subsequently denied the media allegations, saying the troops were on battle alert but never left their deployment units.

The dismissal of Heorhiyenko was most likely connected with what ordinary Ukrainians see as the widespread corruption of the traffic police, who have turned bribe-taking from drivers into their main source of income and into a habit accepted practically on a nationwide scale. "Who can trust a cop who doesn't take money?" a police supervisor asks in the famous 1973 American cop movie "Serpico." Ukraine's traffic police seem to understand trustworthiness in much the same way.

While introducing Lutsenko to the Interior Ministry staff, Yushchenko said the new minister's primary task is to discourage police from taking bribes and to mobilize them for serving the people.

Yushchenko reiterated his priorities as he addressed senior law enforcement personnel during a trip to Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region yesterday.

"I do not want to see corrupt authorities. I do not want to know the price for [obtaining the position of] police chief in the Donetsk region because nobody will pay that price," Yushchenko said. "There will be a police chief who will serve several million people here, dispirited people."

Yushchenko has given Lutsenko two months to achieve the first tangible results in his new job.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.