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A new police force in Kyiv seems to be winning over the public in the Ukrainian capital, if social media is any barometer. Selfies with some of the 2,000 officers -- many of them young and photogenic, and a fifth of them female -- are all the rage on the Internet.
Better-trained and better-paid, the police force is also perhaps the most visible reform put in place by Ukraine's government since it came to power in February 2014.
The new police force took to the streets of Kyiv after being formally sworn in on July 4, replacing the old traffic police corps and taking on additional duties. President Petro Poroshenko told the force, which will first patrol big towns and then be deployed across the country, that it was their task not only to uphold the law but "also to make people believe that reforms are inevitable."
For many in Ukraine, like elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the police have been more loathed than loved, seen more interested in harassing rather than protecting citizens, including the extortion of bribes. The pro-Western government may see police reform as a way to shake off the legacy of the Soviet-era at a time when it is fighting Russian-backed rebels in the east and smarting from Moscow's takeover of the Crimea region.
Washington has given its backing to the police reform project, providing training and money. Overseeing the effort is Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze, who was in charge of a much-praised police overhaul in her native Georgia under former President Mikheil Saaksahvili -- another Georgian hired by Poroshenko to shake things up in Ukraine, as governor of the Odesa region.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs provided training to 100 Ukrainian police instructors earlier this year. Those instructors then went on to teach the new police course in Kyiv for the first class of officers. Besides U.S. training, the new officers have received U.S.-style uniforms with the kind of high-crowned, black-brimmed caps worn by many police in American cities.
The United States, which says that reforms are a sure-fire way for Ukraine to ward off Russian influence, has contributed $15 million to the effort. The new patrol force in Kyiv is still viewed as experimental. Other branches of the police in the capital have not been disbanded. New patrol police are expected to hit the streets in other Ukrainian cities, including Mykolaiv and Odesa on the Black Sea coast, in the coming months.
Average monthly pay for the new officers in Kyiv ranges from 7,000 to 10,000 hryvnyas ($320 -$450), a cut above the average Kyiv salary of 6,000 hryvnyas.
Besides the pay, many officers say they were drawn to the job by a desire to help others.
Yuriy Sivobrod, a 28-year-old who used to work as a construction firm manager, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service the new force “is trying to help wherever we can.”
“There’ve been times when a driver’s car has broken down and we’ve helped him get it to a car repair site, or helped someone who’s run out of gas. In the past, it was impossible to get the police to help in such cases,” Sivobrod said.
'We Want To Change Something In This Country'
Nadia Ivanova, a 21-year-old former physical education teacher, said she joined in part to follow in the footsteps of her father, a former officer. She told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that women and men on the new force have the same rights and responsibilities.
“Everyone gets along well with one another. If a male colleague was to harass a female officer, I think he would be fired immediately,” Ivanova said.
Roman Nedilko, a 26-year-old former soldier in the Ukrainian army, said he was attracted by the prospect of being able to help bring long-anticipated reforms to life.
“We want to change something in this country so that people will trust us, that they can approach us and ask for help and we won’t demand a bribe,” Nedilko told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service in July.
And people are approaching, stopping the new officers on the streets of Kyiv for joint photographs, or selfies, including Pavel Kanygin, a journalist with Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta who has reported from the conflict zone in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine.
The new officers also don't appear shy to go after those in power.
Parliament member Volodymyr Parasyuk, for example, was ticketed for running a red light in downtown Kyiv last month. He took part in the Euromaidan protests and later fought in Donbas as a member of the Dnipro Battalion.
Ukraine has already made greater strides to recast its police than Russia, where critics of a major 2011 police reform effort say changes have been more cosmetic than concrete, according to Yevhen Zakharov, the director of Kharkiv-based NGO Human Rights in Ukraine.
“All the organs of the former police [in Ukraine] are to be liquidated, people fired, and the national police force will be created from scratch. As far as I know, in Russia nothing similar happened, everything was simply renamed,” Zakharov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian and Ukrainian Services.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.