The powerful and unpopular Why the sudden resignation of Ukraine’s top police official is an important political event
On July 13, Ukraine’s top police official, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, filed a letter of resignation. On July 15, the Ukrainian parliament supported his decision to step down. Avakov assumed office seven years ago, immediately after the end of the Euromaidan Revolution in February 2014. He remained interior minister throughout President Petro Poroshenko’s entire term (2014–2019) despite repeated shuffles in the cabinet. Avakov held on to his position even under President Volodymyr Zelensky, who initiated a radical renewal of government personnel. Although Avakov is extremely unpopular in Ukraine, Zelensky has still said that “there’s no better minister.” Meduza explains why.
From the ‘party of war’
Arsen Avakov is one of the most powerful government officials in Ukraine. Until 2010, he was governor of the Kharkiv region. In 2012, he was elected to the Ukrainian parliament as a member of the Fatherland party (led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko). In 2014, he was elected to parliament once again — this time as a member of the People’s Front, which, amid the most acute period of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, was referred to as the “party of war.”
After becoming Interior Minister, Avakov’s first move was to reestablish the National Guard — a military force with law enforcement functions — on the basis of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops. The National Guard is referred to in Ukraine as Avakov “personal army.” Along with regular Ukrainian troops, National Guard units were sent to fight the separatists and Russian armed forces in Donbas.
Volunteer battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine were also brought under the Interior Ministry. The most famous among them is the Azov Battalion, which later became the Azov Regiment of the National Guard. One of Azov’s founders, right-wing nationalist Andriy Biletsky, has been a close associate of Avakov since his time Kharkiv. Biletsky was involved with the Kharkiv branch of the far-right Social-National Assembly Party (now the Svoboda party) and co-founded its off-shoot, the ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi movement Social-National Assembly.
Belarusian neo-Nazi Serihy Korotkykh, otherwise known as “Botsman,” also fought with Azov and later ended up close to Avakov. Long before he moved to Ukraine, Korotkykh founded the Russian far-right group National Socialist Society, whose members have been accused of committing murders motivated by racial hatred. In Russia, Korotkykh went by the nickname “Malyuta” and befriended well-known neo-Nazi Maxim “Tesak” Martsinkevich — together, they carried out a radical project dubbed “Occupy Pedophilia,” taking public actions to “hunt” men identified as “pedophiles.” According to his Ukrainian asset declarations, Korotkykh worked as the head of the Interior Ministry’s Police Department for the Security of Strategic Objects from 2015 to 2018.
In addition, Biletsky and Korotkykh’s comrade — the Azov Battallion’s former deputy commander, Vadym Troyan — served as Avakov’s deputy for a long time.
Soon after the Euromaidan Revolution, known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity, expat reformers began arriving in the country. In late 2014, Arsen Avakov appointed former Georgian official Eka Zguladze as Ukraine’s First Deputy Interior Minister. Zguladze worked for the Georgian Interior Ministry for seven years during the tenure of President Mikheil Saakashvili, and carried out a radical and effective police reform in Georgia. As part of Ukraine’s police reform, the police service changed its name from Militsiya to Politsiya, and another former Georgian official from Saakashvili’s circle — Khatia Dekanoidze — was made Chief of the new Ukrainian National Police. Dekanoidze previously directed the police academy in Georgia and trained patrol officers. Ukraine’s new police officers were trained with the help of instructors from the United States.
That said, Avakov’s relationship with Saakashvili himself was completely dysfunctional. After the former Georgian President was appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region in 2015, he regularly made public accusations of corruption against Avakov’s People’s Front party. It got to the point where, during a meeting of Ukraine's National Council for Reforms in December 2015, and in the presence of then-President Petro Poroshenko, Avakov threw a glass of water at Saakashvili after the Odesa governor called him a thief.
Initially, the public perception of Avakov’s police reform was positive — at one point, 53 percent of Ukrainians said they trusted the new patrol police. But by 2016, this figure had fallen by nearly 20 percent. The disappointment stemmed from ongoing corruption scandals, as well as the fact that patrol officers didn’t always respond quickly when called. Moreover, an important step in the reforms had failed: the re-certification of police officers. Well-trained professionals were supposed to replace the cadres of old, corrupt police officers linked to cases of violence and torture. However, according to Khatia Dekanoidze, 93 percent of the people dismissed from the old Militsiya were able to return to the police force through the courts — and they were compensated for “forced absenteeism” at that. Dekhanoidze attributed this to the fact that the Ukrainian courts, unlike the police service, “didn’t undergo reforms.”
In the fall of 2020, the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation conducted a sociological survey, which showed that 80 percent Ukrainians have a negative opinion of Avakov’s work — only 18.1 percent gave his activities a positive assessment. By this time, protest rallies under the widely-used slogan “Avakov is the devil” were regular occurrences in Kyiv.
The Sheremet Case
When Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in 2019, he changed the entire leadership of the security bloc, from the Security Service (SBU) to the Defense Ministry. Only Arsen Avakov remained in his place, primarily due to the fact that he “provided Zelensky with fair elections” — and directed his own resources against Petro Poroshenko. For example, the far-right National Druzhyna militia, which is part of the Azov movement, organized protests against the incumbent president, and then took part in monitoring the elections.
Allegedly, Zelensky left Avakov in place on the condition that he properly investigate the murder of well-known journalist Pavel Sheremet, who worked in Russia and Belarus, as well as Ukraine. Sheremet was killed by a car bomb in central Kyiv on July 20, 2016 — for the next several years, the Interior Ministry didn’t report any results from the investigation into his murder.
In October 2019, Zelensky told journalists that he had given Avakov until the end of the year to show progress in the investigation. Literally a month later, law enforcement began arresting suspects. The Interior Ministry named three volunteers who had assisted the Ukrainian army in Donbas as the perpetrators: Andriy Antonenko, Yulia Kuzmenko, and Yana Duhar. The arrests drew a flurry of criticism, mainly because the investigation provided inconclusive evidence to back up the accusations.
The Sheremet case is now under consideration in court, but the masterminds and organizers behind the journalist’s murder have yet to be identified. At the end of May 2021, Zelensky announced that if the suspects in the case were to be unlawfully convicted, Avakov would face problems.
Ukrainian lawmaker Iryna Vereshchuk, from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, has already hinted to journalists that the interior minister’s resignation is connected to the investigation into Pavel Sheremet’s killing. “At a [meeting] of the [Servant of the People] faction the president said that he summoned Avakov and invited him to write his resignation,” Vereshchuk told the Ukrainian news outlet Censor.net. “I only know that the president had questions about the Sheremet case. You remember that he spoke openly about the fact that if there’s no evidence, we will make decisions. Perhaps this was the last straw.”
In accordance with the Ukrainian Constitution, the Verkhovna Rada (the country’s parliament) had to approve Avakov’s resignation. The Rada’s lawmakers already tried to dismiss the interior minister back in 2017, after his son — Oleksandr Avakov — was accused of embezzling government funds. Only 31 deputies supported the dismissal and the charges against Avakov Jr. were soon dropped. However, judging by comments from Deputy Interior Minister Anton Herashchenko, Avakov’s advisor Zoryan Shkiryak, and members of the ruling party faction (which holds a majority in parliament), this time around Avakov’s removal was predetermined.
Moreover, when Avakov announced his resignation, the Servant of the People faction immediately announced the name of his successor. The interior minister’s seat is set to be taken up by Denys Monastyrsk, a Servant of the People lawmaker. Monastyrsk is closely linked to people in Avakov’s circle — before being elected to the Rada, he was an expert on the law enforcement system at the Ukrainian Institute of the Future and an aide to Anton Herashchenko (he was an MP at the time, but is now the deputy interior minister).
Unsurprisingly, Monastyrsky is being called “Avakov’s man.” By all appearances, the outgoing interior minister will retain his influence in the security apparatus even after his resignation. And this means that Avakov won’t disappear from high-level Ukrainian politics in the years to come.
Translation by Eilish Hart