Ukraine’s president laments police inaction and 'treachery' in restive east
Kiev’s grip loosens as police bow to pro-Russian militants
An elderly woman gives food to am armed man in front of the occupied regional administration building in Lugansk, on Wednesday. Anti-government protesters had seized the building, as well as the state prosecutor’s office and regional television station, on Tuesday night. Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/ EPA
Another day in eastern Ukraine, and another police unit trudges despondently from another official building in another city.
This time it was Luhansk, an industrial centre just 25 kilometres from the Russian border, where on Tuesday night anti-government protesters seized the headquarters of the regional administration, state prosecutor’s office and television station.
In each case, police offered no serious resistance to protesters led by gangs of masked men carrying weapons ranging from baseball bats to Kalashnikov rifles.
The police had their own guns but no inclination to use them, even to fire warning shots, and soon the flags of Russia and Ukraine’s pro-Moscow rebel movement were flying over another set of strategic sites in an eastern regional capital.
A group of Luhansk police refused to allow protesters to enter their headquarters yesterday, but such resistance is the exception across the area.
The norm is swift capitulation. In Donetsk on Monday, ranks of riot police looked on, and some officers ran away, when anti-government protesters attacked a rally for Ukrainian unity. Yesterday, rebels faced no opposition when seizing local government and police buildings in the town of Horlivka.
“Events in the east of the country have shown the inaction and helplessness – and sometimes the criminal treachery – of members of law enforcement agencies,” Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchinov said yesterday.
“It’s hard to admit, but it’s true: the overwhelming majority of security officers in the east are unable to fulfil their task of defending our citizens.”
Turchinov sacked more regional security officials and again urged Ukrainian “patriots” to join the police, in his latest attempt to stiffen the ranks of a force which, in eastern regions near Russia, displays scant loyalty to the country’s new leaders.
He is in a bind: deploying the military could invite Russian invasion, and sending in pro-government police officers from western Ukraine would stoke civil strife in a deeply divided country.
Polls show that only a minority of easterners want to break from Ukraine and join Russia, but that a strong majority feels deep mistrust of the new pro-EU government, and desires far greater autonomy from Kiev.
Such sentiments are clearly present in the security services, which were deeply shaken by Ukraine’s revolution.
Former president Viktor Yanukovich – a Donetsk man – relied on riot police from his eastern and southern strongholds to quash protests in Kiev. When he fled, and demonstrators castigated the police, many officers felt a personal sense of defeat.
They have no desire to serve politicians whom they accuse of humiliating them and their eastern comrades, or to fight an anti-government movement that is supported by, and in many cases includes, relatives, friends and neighbours.
It is unclear who will be running eastern Ukraine in a few weeks or months, and many police officers seem to be hedging their bets by appearing to follow orders while acting with the utmost passivity; it is conceivable that the region could follow Crimea into Russia — where police salaries and pensions are far higher than those paid by Kiev.