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If You’re Going to EuroMaidan

Ukraine’s infamous traffic police create a temporary unit that will likely step up harassment of protesters heading to Kyiv.

by Halya Coynash 6 January 2014

Ukraine’s traffic police are as notorious as the country’s roads, and both are best avoided. That is not an option for people taking part in the EuroMaidan peaceful protests, not only because many come to Kyiv from other parts of the country. The traffic police have been widely used to prevent people from physically reaching the demonstrations as well as to intimidate those taking part. A new traffic police special unit whose formation was announced on 2 January is likely to increase interference. 


Since the “AutoMaidan” car procession on 29 December to the president’s controversial residence at Mezhyhirya, north of Kyiv, and the sumptuous homes of others in high positions, activists and journalists who took part have had visits from traffic police officers or have been invited in for a “chat.” Such measures are overtly intimidating – and illegal since both visits and “invitations” are beyond the specific powers of the traffic police. The officers’ claim in each case that they are investigating the failure of participants in the car procession to stop at the demand of police officers is also unconvincing. Even if they made some kind of general gesture calling on drivers to stop, an individual driver is obliged to pull over only if an officer specifically points to his or her car. 


It is drearily predictable that these inept measures are being applied against protesters who headed for Viktor Yanukovych’s residence at Mezhyhirya. All attempts since Yanukovych became president to hold peaceful protests near the vast estate, and to demand openness about the former state residence believed to have been privatized through questionable dealings have resulted in court bans, some administrative terms of imprisonment, and informal methods of pressure. Given that one of the journalists most active in exposing corrupt schemes, Tetyana Chornovol, is still in the hospital after a savage attack on 25 December, traffic police attempts to intimidate other civic activists and journalists are doing the president no favors.


They prompt equally uncharitable thoughts about other high-ranking public officials. The attack on Chornovol came after she posted photos of the opulent conditions in which Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko lives, and before she had a chance to post similar photos of the residence of the prosecutor general, Viktor Pshonka. The apparent attempt on her life came just days after a second potentially fatal attack on members of the traffic police watchdog group Road Control. Those, in turn, coincided with two criminal prosecutions on preposterous charges against Road Control’s Andriy Dzyndzya and his lawyer, Viktor Smaliy.  


Instead of measures to find those guilty of these attacks and equally serious assaults on Kharkiv EuroMaidan activist Dmytro Pylypets and others, the police have responded by organizing a special unit, probably formed from the previous COBRA unit. The latter was frequently exposed by Road Control, which asserts that its purported role of catching officials as well as their privileged offspring was purely nominal, and in fact they stopped ordinary drivers, falsified evidence, and extorted bribes. 


The new unit announced last week will work until 31 January in Kyiv and the Kyiv oblast. “The measures will activate prophylactic work aimed at preventing accidents; reducing the consequences of road accidents; and countering unlawful activities linked with the use of vehicles,” according to the Interior Ministry. As with the use of Berkut riot police, the deployment and functions of this new unit are regulated by a minister’s order, not a law, which would at least have to be considered by parliament and be subject to public scrutiny. 


If the aim were seriously to avoid accidents, there would be no reason to use a special unit and every justification in extending the actions to cover the entire country. It is small wonder that Road Control, together with EuroMaidan activists, assume that this is yet another method to intimidate and crush the pro-EU EuroMaidan movement. 


These techniques have been used widely over the last four years. Road Control is correct to advise people of their rights, but police methods are often insidious. Traffic police can make it clear to transportation companies that they will encounter difficulties in the future if they carry protesters.  Or they can scrutinize the car or people’s documents until they find something, or claim to have. Such methods often work, and it seems likely that their frequency will increase over the next month. 


On the other hand anger remains intense at the government’s use of force against peaceful protesters, the increasing number of attacks on civic activists, and other repressive measures. The regime is resorting to its standard methods of pressure. Their effect, however, is much less predictable. 

Halya Coynash is a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on whose website a version of this commentary was previously published.
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