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Calls For Dismissal Of Ukraine's Powerful Interior Minister Grow Louder After Alleged Police Rape, Gangland Shooting

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov attends a cabinet meeting in Kyiv on January 29.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov attends a cabinet meeting in Kyiv on January 29.

KYIV -- The 26-year-old woman was brought to a police station in the central Ukrainian town of Kaharlyk, where officers told her she would be questioned as a witness to an alleged theft. But according to the State Bureau of Investigation, two policemen covered her face with a gas mask and handcuffed her, fired a gun over her head and then raped her several times on the night of May 23.

A week later and just 90 kilometers north, in a residential suburb of Kyiv, some 100 gunmen from two rival criminal gangs engaged in a shoot-out in broad daylight. The melee, a video of which went viral, left several people wounded and spawned comparisons to the anarchic, hyper-violent video game Grand Theft Auto on social media.

The incidents highlight what critics of Ukraine's formidable interior minister, Arsen Avakov, say is his failure to reform the police and bring law and order to the country. They also add to a growing list of high-profile cases in recent years in which Ukrainian law enforcement agencies have been accused of involvement, negligence, or botching the investigation on Avakov's watch.

Now those critics say it's time for Avakov to go -- or, as some have put it during past protests against him, to "Avak-off" -- a play on the minister's surname and the F-word in English.

Protesters rally for Avakov's dismissal near the Interior Ministry in Kyiv on May 28.
Protesters rally for Avakov's dismissal near the Interior Ministry in Kyiv on May 28.

These are not the first calls for Avakov's dismissal during his six-year tenure but they are the latest -- and they seem to be louder and coming from more circles than before.

Those expressing their desire for his ouster include members of civil society, especially human rights groups and anti-corruption activists, and lawmakers, some of them from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's ruling party. They argue that Avakov has abused his power for too long and failed to reform a law enforcement system that prioritizes politics over protecting the public.

"Let's face it, he's been the interior minister for the past six years and six years is a long term, an amount of time that allows a person to make changes," Inna Sovsun, a lawmaker from the Holos (Voice) party who is pushing for Avakov's removal, told RFE/RL. "If there was a chance he was going to do something, he would have done it already."

"That is our argument [for his dismissal]: It's not because of this rape case or the shooting. It's because those two cases are examples of the biggest problems facing law enforcement in Ukraine, which he's not dealing with," Sovsun said.

Her party had gathered 55 signatures from lawmakers across parties in support of Avakov's dismissal by June 2. But at least 150 signatures are needed to force an extraordinary session of the 450-seat parliament to discuss his removal.

In a statement sent to reporters on June 3, the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), echoed Sovsun's sentiment, calling the alleged police rape and shoot-out "evidence of the desperate need for real police reform and the resistance of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to bringing changes."

The 'Tsar'

Appointed to lead the Interior Ministry in the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, when massive protests toppled Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych and his government, which was seen as riddled with corruption, Avakov has survived several changes of government and two presidencies.

In that time, his power has grown so much that he is known to be the second-most-influential person in the country behind the president.

As interior minister, he controls most of Ukraine's law enforcement bodies, from the National Police force on down to local police departments, as well as the National Guard. The border guards, coast guard, Emergency Situations Ministry, and Migration Service also fall under the control of his ministry.

Despite talk from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) of political consequences, Arsen Avakov continues as minister.
Despite talk from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) of political consequences, Arsen Avakov continues as minister.

"The police and Interior Ministry under control of Avakov is kind of a country within a country, with its own rules and with its own tsar, whose name is Arsen Borisovich the Absolute," Daria Kalenyuk, executive director of AntAC, told RFE/RL, referring to Avakov by his patronymic and a tongue-in-cheek nickname that officials within the ministry are said to use when talking about him.

Avakov's reach also extends to parliament, where he "totally controls" the Committee on Law Enforcement and can get most members to "vote as he says," Oleksandra Ustinova, a Voice lawmaker who serves on the committee, told RFE/RL. "Avakov is trying to get as much power as possible."

In what government watchdogs and activists fear may be another attempt to broaden his powers, the Interior Ministry recently created a new branch known as the Department of the Protection of the Interests of Society and the State.

In a statement sent to RFE/RL, Avakov's office said the branch was not an attempt to broaden his powers but "a structural unit of the police headquarters within the criminal police, which carries out operational and investigative activities to identify, prevent, and stop offenses against public safety and order, human and civil rights and freedoms."

About the public calls for Avakov's resignation, his office said he will respond to the issue when he delivers a report to parliament on June 5.

'No Police Reform'

Critics say Avakov's expansive powers have hampered efforts to implement crucial reforms of the law enforcement system.

Khatia Dekanoidze, a former Georgian minister who served as chief of Ukraine's National Police from November 2015 to November 2016, told RFE/RL that reforms she moved to put in place had since been upended.

As part of those reforms, Dekanoidze imposed a vetting process for the police that saw more than 5,600 corrupt and unprofessional officers, or about 6 percent of the police force, fired.

Today, that process no longer exists and many of those officers have been rehired after courts ruled against their firing, she said. "There is no police reform at all," Dekanoidze said. "The [National] Police is a swamp, frankly speaking."

Critics charge that the reform failure has allowed organized criminal activity to flourish, perpetrators of serious crimes that have shaken the country to go unpunished, and law enforcement to operate with impunity.

Sovsun cited reporting from civil rights groups that found some 60,000 cases of police brutality and torture within police departments occur in Ukraine each year. "This is a terrible, terrible number and it shows that the system isn't functioning to protect the people of Ukraine."

Controversial Cases

Before the alleged rape and shoot-out in late May, there were the high-profile cases of activists Kateryna Handzyuk, who was doused with acid and later died from complications, and Iryna Nozdrovska, a lawyer who was allegedly murdered by a neighbor whose son had run his car over her sister -- neither of which have been fully solved, and both of which are shadowed by allegations of police misconduct or negligence.

Then there was the fatal shooting of a 5-year-old boy by two allegedly drunken police officers, both of whom were released on a lowered bail last month.

Critics say police reform won't happen under Avakov.
Critics say police reform won't happen under Avakov.

There were calls for Avakov's resignation after that case in June 2019 and Zelenskiy said, "I am sure that there will be political responsibility and criminal liability." But neither followed.

Avakov has also faced allegations of corruption, particularly in a case involving his son and the alleged embezzlement of state budget funds allocated for the purchase of 6,000 backpacks by the Interior Ministry for forces fighting Russia-backed separatists in the country's east. He has denied wrongdoing.

'A Smart Politician'

Through it all, Avakov has outlasted calls for his removal and cemented his power. Critics say it is because he has made himself indispensable to each president he has served under.

Dekanoidze said the argument often made by Avakov and his supporters goes something like this: the minister is the only one who knows how to maintain order and without him in place chaos would reign. "Avakov has always said, 'If I'm not the minister, the system will fall,'" she said.

His detractors do not buy that argument.

"I don't believe this," Kalenyuk said. "Ukraine, which has been at war with Russia for six years, has many other very capable managers, officers with high integrity, who can impose proper management over the Interior Ministry and police in Ukraine."

She said Avakov had managed to stay in power for so long and despite so many government personnel changes not because he is viewed as the only man capable of maintaining public order but because he is "a very smart politician."

"He always plays two or three or four sides" at a time, she said.

As an example, she cited what she said was Avakov's ability to manipulate lawmakers in Zelenskiy's ruling party to vote against the president when it serves the minister's own interest.

She also said Avakov had worked hard to win over Ukraine's international partners. For instance, the Interior Ministry's purchase of dozens of helicopters from France bought him much praise, she said.

Another example, according to Kalenyuk, was that Avakov warned then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch that there were people close to President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who were trying to smear her reputation and get her removed from her post, while also providing security for those people, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, she said.

That information came to light in Yovanovitch's deposition in November and later in documents released by the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives during the process of Trump's impeachment.

A seeming combination of broad power, political savvy, and a knack for shaking off attempts to displace him could make this latest push for his dismissal an uphill battle, Sovsun said. But it is one that she and other detractors said was worth fighting.

Activists were planning a protest against Avakov on June 5, when he is set to address parliament, while continuing to gather signatures to officially debate his removal.

Kalenyuk does not expect Avakov to go down without a fight. "When he loses his post, he loses his power," she said.

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