Over the last two and half months, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have protested the increasingly authoritarian direction of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government. At the forefront of Ukrainians’ objections to the government are a special police force known as the Berkut, or “Golden Eagle.”
During the Euromaidan Protests, Yanukovych has deployed up to 5,000 members of the Berkut to assist in protest management, including the use of water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Rather than quelling the disturbances, the Berkut has fanned the flames, using increasingly brutal measures to fight protesters.
The Berkut are a special police force that has had a long history of brutality, abuse, torture, and other measures in service of whatever political regime is in control of Ukraine. The force was first formed in 1988 as part of the Soviet OMON (Special Purpose Police Unit), an elite riot police and paramilitary force.
In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the force reformed as the Berkut under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was stationed in every province. Originally established to fight organised crime, the force has been increasingly utilized to maintain law and order and break up “mass events,” such as riots and protests.
Check out their recruitment video here (It’s in Ukrainian):
Since their inception, they have been involved in numerous scandals, including violently dispersing peacefully protesting coal miners in 1998, violently attacking protesters during the Ukraine Without Kuchma protests in 2001, as well as sadistically attacking protesters during the current Euromaidan protests.
Berkut members are carefully selected and trained extensively. Prior to joining, Berkut men must have army service, as well as two to three years of law enforcement experience. They are usually paid between one and half to two times more than a regular police officer.
The semi-autonomous Berkut police often act with impunity for their actions, leading some to call them a “mafia-style organisation.” Some efforts have been made over the years to rein in Berkut power, most notably by Yuriy Lutsenko (now an opposition leader) under President Viktor Yushchenko. Lutsenko set up human rights experts and oversight groups to monitor the activities of the Berkut and other members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
When current President Yanukovych came to power, these measures were rolled back. Yanukovych appointed a close ally to run the MIA and, since, the Berkut has upped its brutality.
During the current protests, there have been numerous instances of reported Berkut brutality. The most recent reports charge Berkut with firing at protesters and a video has surfaced of Berkut officers parading a naked protester around on a snow-covered street. A Berkut officer grabs the man and kicks him as he is placed on a police bus. You can see the video below (WARNING: It is graphic):
The Euromaidan Protests may have started over a trade agreement dispute, but it’s end could hinge on serious reform of the country’s most brutal police force.
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