In late October, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) detained the interior minister’s son, Oleksandr Avakov. Allegedly, he was indicted in a corruption scheme that cost the Ukrainian budget over 14 million hryvnas (about $520,000). The younger Avakov and two other senior officials at the Ministry of Interior were accused of embezzling this amount in a case related to the supply of backpacks to the Ministry (Kyiv Post, October 31).
Afterward, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov posted on his Facebook page, accusing the NABU of trying to put “[political] pressure” on him through these actions against his son Oleksandr. After reciprocal accusations of Minister Avakov putting political pressure on the NABU, Avakov’s 29-year-old son was released from detention two days later, after he agreed to wear an ankle monitor and to hand in his passport (Kyiv Post, October 31).
Prior to this high-profile incident, in early October, the former advisor to the interior minister, parliamentary deputy Anton Geraschenko, appeared on the TV channel ICTV. He stressed that the conflict between his previous boss and President Petro Poroshenko has existed since the latter’s election day because “the president wanted to concentrate all power over law enforcement in his own hands; and the People’s Front, Arsen Avakov and I believe that this is a very dangerous precedent” (Pravda.com.ua, October 2).
Avakov is currently one of the key figures in the political party People’s Front, which narrowly beat Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc during the 2014 general elections, gaining 22.14 versus 21.82 percent of the vote, respectively. As a result Arseniy Yatseniuk—as the leader of the People’s Front—preserved his position as prime minister for the next 18 months, until April 2016. At that point, he was replaced by current Prime Minister Volodymir Groysman.
Last year, Interior Minister Avakov managed to increase the state budget for the National Police and National Guard by 12 percent. Total spending for all agencies and departments under his control now amounts to 46.3 billion hryvnas ($2 billon), while total expenditures for the Ministry of Defense are only somewhat larger—64.4 billion hryvnas ($3.2 billion) (112.ua, December 21, 2016). At the same time, the National Guard, which the interior ministry controls, has better equipment, vehicles, uniforms and other supplies than what Ukrainian regular army servicemen generally use on the front line (Author’s observations, around Peski and Avdiivka, March 25–April 2; Understandingwar.org, December 9, 2016).
The preexisting tensions between Avakov and Poroshenko were further exacerbated after several hundred protesters put up tents in front of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) in mid-October 2017, to criticize the presidential administration’s slow movement on anti-corruption reforms (see EDM, October 31). Despite a number of violations by both the demonstrators and law enforcement, the National Police ultimately took a neutral path and allowed the protesters to remain on the square in front of the Rada. Conspicuously, just two weeks later, Oleksandr Avakov was detained by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which charged him with a crime he had allegedly committed almost three years ago.
All these issues have raised questions about whether Interior Minister Avakov is capable of challenging President Poroshenko politically or even militarily (in a coup-like scenario). What would happen if Avakov were to take the side of the protesters and use them as a shield to push Poroshenko to resign? What about the “Azov” battalion, which remains under the control of Minister Avakov as a part of the National Guard? The “Azov” unit was founded by the far-right “National Corps Party’s” leader, Andrii Biletsky, in 2014 (Nationalcorps.org, accessed December 4). Today this unit is fully funded by the government and is completely loyal to Minister Avakov.
Another alarming fact for Poroshenko is a poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI’s), released this past summer, which shows that 72 percent of Ukrainians are convinced their country is moving in the wrong direction, and only 13 percent of respondents think Ukraine is heading toward prosperity. Moreover, 39 percent believe “the President bears primary responsibility for today’s situation in Ukraine.” It is worth emphasizing that only 4 percent of respondents claim that Russia is to blame. In fact, 43 percent “strongly disapprove” of President Poroshenko’s job performance (Iri.org, June 7).
This deep public pessimism, combined with the absence of fundamental reforms and enormous corruption stemming from the Poroshenko administration, has been sparking additional protests around the country. These demonstrations have attracted civil society, Donbas war veterans, volunteers, entrepreneurs and other activists (YouTube, June 27, December 3; Fakty.ictv.ua, March 14).
In today’s Ukraine, going out into the streets to protest is still seen as one of the key means for achieving justice or human rights and to speak out against corruption. Were another uprising to one day grow into a new “Maidan,” those in control of militias or the police would be key players, strongly influencing the outcomes of possible protests. The EuroMaidan revolt of 2013–2014 is illustrative of this reality.
According to the Ukrainian constitution, the Army can only be deployed domestically if the president declares a state of emergency, otherwise the National Guard and Police undertake all responses. Hence, it is difficult to exaggerate the outsized role Avakov plays in the country—his position allows him to manipulate the president for more political benefits, such as to keep Poroshenko from calling early snap elections. Avakov’s People’s Front party, which holds 81 out of 450 seats in parliament, could fail to win any if new elections were held soon because its current popularity stands at only about 0.4 percent (Ukranews.com, November 22, 2016).
A final factor to watch closely is the high numbers of Ukrainian veterans—some 300,000 men—who served in Donbas and participated in direct military clashes against combined Russian-separatists forces (Fakty.ictv.ua, August 10, 2017). After returning home, most of them see no changes and have to struggle to support their families. Many of them suffer emotional problems but do not receive appropriate medical treatment. This category is vulnerable to being hired by local oligarchs or politicians who might be interested in escalating political tensions.
As such, the risk of a possible violent coup overtaking Ukraine in the near future is greater than many might expect. Numerous Ukrainian activists, including those returning from the front, are convinced corruption and lack of justice and political will to bring about real changes in Ukraine—which was demanded during the EuroMaidan—have become the enemy at home. To them, the revolution is incomplete, and a new uprising is seen as the only solution. The Poroshenko-Avakov standoff could dangerously intensify such an outcome.