Ukraine’s spring 2007 political crisis was the first occasion in Ukraine’s history that brought the country to the brink of bloodshed on three separate fronts. National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Deputy Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov said that last weekend (May 24-27) could have descended into violence between supporters of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The specter of conflict pushed both sides toward a compromise over Saturday night.
First, on May 24 two law enforcement units, Interior Ministry (MVS) riot police (“Berkut” or “Eagles”) and the State Protection Directorate came to blows in the prosecutor’s central office in Kyiv. The U.S. equivalent would be an altercation between a police SWAT team and the Secret Service.
Second, Berkut forces illegally occupied a central government building. Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko also ordered Tytan, the special forces of the Directorate to Combat Organized Crime, and the elite Omega special forces unit to prepare to storm more buildings. Again, this was a first for Ukraine.
Third, President Yushchenko ordered MVS troops to move on Kyiv. This was the second time MVS troops had been ordered into downtown Kyiv, the first being on November 28, 2004, to suppress the pro-Yushchenko Orange Revolution.
Neither time did the Internal Troops reach downtown Kyiv. In 2004 their route was blocked by taxis and the commander of military ground forces, who threatened to intervene in support of the pro-Yushchenko supporters. In 2007 they were blocked by traffic police.
Yushchenko’s actions last weekend were confusing. On May 24 he warned the security forces to stay out of the crisis, but two days later he dispatched Internal Troops to the capital, a move confirmed by the NSDC. On May 27 Yushchenko ridiculed the claim that he had ordered them to Kyiv, claiming that the MVS troops were sent to keep order at the Donetsk Shkakhtiar-Kyiv Dynamo soccer match and for the holiday weekend.
The MVS troops are the largest security force in Ukraine and come under the jurisdiction of the government. The constitutional reforms that went into effect in January 2006, transferred control over the government from the president to a parliamentary coalition.
Under the constitutional reforms, the president retains control over the Security Service (SBU) and their Alpha anti-terrorist unit, the NSDC, foreign and defense ministries, and the prosecutor’s office. The Anti-Crisis coalition in control of parliament has challenged the president’s jurisdiction over the Foreign Ministry and fired foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk in December 2006. The Anti-Crisis coalition has also dominated the prosecutor’s office.
Both sides in the crisis broke the law in an attempt at gaining advantage. Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko had no legal right to dispatch riot police to the prosecutor’s office, as the State Protection Directorate guards central government buildings.
Yushchenko infringed the law when he expanded the NSDC to include personnel that were not specified in Ukrainian legislation, such as MVS Internal Troops commander General Oleksandr Kihtenko.
Yushchenko also brought Ivan Pliushch back to replace NSDC chief Vitaliy Hayduk, although by law he is too old to work in a state institution. The head of the presidential secretariat, Viktor Baloha, also supported Hayduk’s removal. As Zerkalo nedeli pointed out, “Baloha thereby “neutralized” the man who objected to the NSDC being involved in dubious plots.”
Baloha has two key allies: Oleksandr Turchynov, Yulia Tymoshenko’s right-hand man, who was appointed NSDC deputy head on May 23, and Valeriy Geleteya, an ally from Baloha’s hometown, Mukachevo, who was appointed head of the State Protection Directorate two days later.
Yushchenko also placed MVS Internal Troops under his command, contradicting Article 6 of the Law on Internal Troops. The MVS disputed the decree transferring the units to presidential control.
Yushchenko took control of Internal Troops for two reasons.
First, MVS Minister Tsushko was planning to escalate the growing conflict by requesting 11,000 weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition from the military (a request confirmed by the defense minister), and was planning to send Internal Troops, 50 men from its Omega special forces unit, six snipers, and a helicopter. The activation of these forces indicated that Tsushko was planning to order the storming of other buildings.
Second, as commander-in-chief, Yushchenko questions whether any security forces designated as “troops” (such as MVS Internal Troops) should be beyond his constitutional control. Control over the MVS has long been a disputed point within the Ukrainian leadership.
MVS Internal Troops had two functions in the Soviet era: to guard prisons and to crush internal dissent. Following the failed August 1991 Soviet coup, special force units designed to quell dissent were detached from the Soviet MVS forces in Ukraine. These became the basis for a Ukrainian National Guard.
Since the National Guard was created before Ukraine elected its first president in December 1991, jurisdiction over them was divided between parliament and president. This dual control proved to be an irritant to President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) who abolished the National Guard in 1999 (the Financial Times this week wrongly described the MVS Internal Troops as a “National Guard”). In 2000 the National Guard units were transferred back to the MVS, which Kuchma controlled under the 1996 constitution.
During the Orange Revolution these MVS Internal Troops and special force units (Bars, Hepard, Jaguar, Omega) were the only security forces that remained loyal to Kuchma. The MVS “Crimean Bars” special forces prevented orange forces from taking over the presidential administration during the Orange Revolution, and their presence in Kyiv led to rumors of “Russian spetsnaz” units in Kyiv.
Yushchenko’s actions during the current crisis mirror the conflict between Kuchma and parliament over the allegiance of these security forces. Judging by their actions in 2004 and 2007, the MVS special forces and Internal Troops remain pro-presidential.
In recent days Ukraine came much closer to violent conflict than it ever did under Kuchma. Battle over control of the security forces, with the breaking of legislation by Yushchenko and Yanukovych, is likely to continue, as both sides see control over them as important in negotiations. Fearing arrest, Tsushko has taken refuge in an Interior Ministry hospital amid claims he has been “poisoned.”
(Zerkalo nedeli, May 15-21, www.president.gov.ua, May 24, 25; Ukrayinska pravda, May 24-27, 31, bbc.co.uk/Ukrainian, May 30, Financial Times, May 25)