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Citizens Rush In To Fill Law Enforcement Gap In Crisis-Gripped Ukraine

Citizens Patrol Kyiv's Government District
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WATCH: Citizens patrol Kyiv's government district

LVIV, Ukraine -- Seventy-year-old Mykhaylo Sidorov laces up his boots, puts his dog, Garri, on a leash and heads out into the night for a five-hour civilian-police patrol. He is just one of dozens of volunteers rushing in to fill the gap left in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv while some police left to join the embattled antigovernment protests in Kyiv.

"Our purpose is mostly informational," he says. "If something happens, we inform the district office and they inform the city office and then a mobile unit with law-enforcement powers will be dispatched if the situation is serious. If it is simply a case of someone drinking too much or something like that, we just have a little talk with them and get them to cool it."

In the wake of violent clashes that left dozens dead in Kyiv and following an agreement that sharply reduced the power of the central government, Ukraine now finds itself coping with a potentially serious vacuum of power.

Reports on Twitter and other social media from Kyiv on February 22 described empty police checkpoints and civilian activists standing guard outside government buildings. The Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it "is fully with the Ukrainian people" and calling for "joint efforts to ensure public order."

On February 21, opposition leader and former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko appeared in Lviv, Ukraine's seventh-largest city with a population of some 730,000, and urged police to rush to Kyiv to defend the gains made by antigovernment demonstrations.

And some have heeded Lutsenko's call.

Lviv-region police Colonel Vasyl Krykalskyi spoke to RFE/RL from the Maidan demonstration in Kyiv on February 21.

"We have come here to give real support and to defend the people of Ukraine," he said. " If governors do not listen, we are ready to use our weapons to protect the people. I'm sure many police officers in western Ukraine and in other regions agree with me."

Volunteers sign up for patrols to maintain law and order in the city of Lviv.
Volunteers sign up for patrols to maintain law and order in the city of Lviv.

In the absence of these police officers, Lviv’s Mayor Andriy Sadovyi praised the new volunteer patrols.

Speaking at a press conference through a translator February 22, he said there had been no major incidents during the previous night.

"We had two thousand representatives of enterprises and companies, nongovernmental organizations and ordinary citizens of Lviv who organized themselves into voluntary citizen patrols," Sadovyi said. "They patrolled the city with about 200 representatives of the local police, although the police were not in their uniforms; they were in civilian clothes with our signs on their clothes."

'I Can't Just Sit At Home'

The situation in Lviv – now much calmer – has been tense in the past week.

On the night of February 18-19, unknown vandals ransacked a district police station and the prosecutor's office. RFE/RL saw destroyed police documents, scorched equipment, and graffiti-covered walls. Three burned-out police vehicles stood in the street in front of the building.

The station was being guarded on February 20 by civilians, who claim the damage was done -- and an undetermined number of weapons stolen -- by "criminal elements" or by pro-government provocateurs.

The missing weapons were foremost in Sidorov's mind as he walked the 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift on the night of February 21.

"Why are we here? The circumstances require it," he said. "You have heard about the events in Lviv in which weapons went missing. Some young men... I don't know what organization they belonged to... The authorities will have to figure that out."

After the ransacking and Lutsenko's visit to Lviv, Mayor Sadovyi worked with remaining police officers and civilian volunteers to set up the patrols and a makeshift emergency-response telephone number.

At 11 p.m. on the night of February 21, a dispatch office of the volunteer force on the second floor of the City Council building was humming with activity. Organizers said that about 250 volunteers -- off-duty police, former police, ex-military, and concerned civilians -- were on the streets in just one city district.

They were patrolling in groups of five, wearing yellow vests to identify them. Organizers said the patrols responded to 22 calls concerning minor disturbances during the previous night. The city does not appear to have experienced any noticeable uptick in crime.

A 20-year-old biology student who asked to be identified only as Dima walked the night patrol together with Sidorov on the night of February 21-22. He says that he didn't join the protests in Kyiv because his elderly mother was frightened for him. Despite her objections, though, he immediately joined the civilian defense patrol.

"Even now she's really worried that I joined the self-defense patrol in Lviv," he said. "But that's just the way it is. She understands that it could be dangerous -- she's a very emotional person. But I can't just sit at home and not do anything except watch television and eat. That's why I'm here, helping as much as I can."

RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Bohdana Kostiuk contributed to this story from Kyiv, and RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague

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