Canada helps Ukraine boot corrupt traffic cops out of Kyiv

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, July 3, 2015 2:50PM EDT

KYIV, Ukraine -- The days of roadside shakedowns by crooked cops in Kyiv may finally be at an end.

Ukraine's interior ministry will disband Kyiv's often corrupt traffic police detachment Saturday and install a new force -- with help from Canada, the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Ask many residents, or even visitors, in the former Soviet republic and invariably the conversation turns to traffic cops with a reputation for pulling over motorists to collect cash fines for real -- or imagined -- violations.

It's a major irritant, a drag on tourism and a sign of stubborn, deeply rooted corruption.

The pilot program in Kyiv will soon be rolled out nationwide. Roman Waschuk, Canada's ambassador to the embattled country, said he's not worried that putting thousands of ex-cops out of work will stoke resentment and violence.

"The existing traffic police in Kyiv, which have been seen as generally quite corrupt, is being dismissed -- wholesale," Waschuk said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"It is one of the most visible symbols of actual change. New people, chosen according to new criteria, with new uniforms, new equipment."

Waschuk said he's confident the spike in unemployment among police officers will not inflame separatists, nor provide a fresh pool of recruits for Russian-backed forces.

But having said that, "there are no risk-free options in this environment," he added.

"This is a form of change citizens in the country are demanding," he said, noting that former police could also join the army or national guard. "It is being done city by city, but nobody is undertaking some national-scale upheaval here."

The force will take a community policing approach, rather the old Soviet top-down model.

Waschuk said approximately 2,000 recruits who graduated from their training program Thursday were selected through a rigorous process of interviews, training and psychological screening. Officers will earn about US $400 a month, more than double the average salary of ordinary working people.

Since Ukrainian independence in the early 1990s, there have been several attempts to reform the traffic cop service, which was considered one of the least trusted institutions in the country. The first aborted attempt was made under former president Viktor Yushchenko in 2005.

While the existing force has been dismissed, members under the age of 35 are being allowed to reapply, as long as they pass the screening.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, the U.S. provisional authority disbanded Saddam Hussein's entire army, putting hundreds of thousands of angry soldiers on the street -- soldiers who later formed the core of the insurgency that flourishes even to this day.

Waschuk said neither he nor the international community believe such a scenario is possible in the reform of police services throughout Ukraine, pointing to a similar successful project in the republic of Georgia, another post-Soviet regime.

Many of those implementing the new model in Kyiv worked on the rehabilitation of law enforcement in Tbilisi, the ambassador said.

"Georgian police reform is seen as a global success story in the best practice."

That may be, but Georgia in 2003-04 was not in the middle of a brutal civil war, which in Ukraine is pitting neighbour against neighbour in the mostly eastern regions.

The U.S. has led the way in establishing the reform program, but Waschuk said Canada will be more heavily involved with the arrival of eight police mentors as other cities are added, including Lviv, Odessa and Kharkiv.