High heels clatter down a pavement crowded with bare legs, stockings and miniskirts as a police car approaches. The vehicle pulls up and two young officers sidle out. After briefly questioning a couple of scantily clad girls hovering near a petrol station and some shady-looking male bystanders, they’re back in the car and off down Kiev’s main route out of town, the eight-lane highway known as “Victory Avenue”. A tall blonde in skin-tight jeans beckons to a white van cruising behind them. Business continues as usual.
For years Ukraine’s police force has profited handsomely from the country’s multi-million dollar sex industry, demanding both payment in cash and payment in kind. It’s forever been the elephant in the parliamentary chamber; the political elite has always known about the problem but never really wanted to talk about it. The country’s government continues to be riddled with corruption and the money generally flows up.
That appeared to have changed earlier this month when the police minister himself, Arsen Avakov, drew attention to the problem in a blog. After a three-month investigation, ministry officials had caught Kiev’s vice squad raking in an average of €325,000 per month from the capital’s sex trade.
“Employees of the DBZTL [Department for Crimes Relating to Human Trafficking] in Kiev were not fighting prostitution and brothels, but the opposite,” Avakov said. “They created and organised a protection racket network for underground brothels and saloons. These dirty police officers established a cash flow into their pockets – covering up and co-ordinating a pimping organisation providing paid sex services through internet sites.”
Avakov said he had ordered the arrest of two of the unit’s chiefs, Colonel Slyusar and Lt Colonel Olkhovik. Four other policemen were detained and 30 people in the enterprise are under investigation. The head of the national DBTZL, Myhailo Andrienko, and the head of DBTZL unit in Kiev, Jarosval Guk, were both dismissed.
The minister’s announcement piqued the interest of undercover TV reporter Yaroslava Koba, who was sceptical about whether the arrests heralded a genuine crackdown on police involvement in the sale of sex. Koba has spent the past three years investigating human trafficking, brothels and massage parlours in Ukraine, even pole-dancing in a strip-tease club to research one of her stories.
When she and her hidden camera crew took to Victory Avenue and started propositioning passing drivers, she was quickly taken to one side by a sex worker who explained each spot by the side of the road was paid for. “You can’t stand here. Up to the bridge, this is my policeman.”
Nothing, it seemed, had changed.
“I have several contacts in the police,” Koba tells Newsweek. “They tell me that they are fighting with prostitution. But it doesn’t happen. A lot of politicians, policemen and parliamentarians are involved in brothels. It’s for the public we pretend that we fight against prostitution, but in reality nobody will fight this.”
Koba explains there are three main markets for sex. At the bottom of the ladder are “girls on the street” who must pay the police 150 UAH (€6) per night to stand in a fixed location, and provide their services to officers for free on demand. The second market is brothels advertised online with a telephone number, for which the brothels must pay €3,700 per month – a kind of line rental fee to avoid harassment by the DBZTL, which maintains a database for the numbers. Lastly there is the “elite prostitution” racket, where producers of beauty pageants and struggling girl bands will “loan” girls out for a few thousand euros per night, but the police are not involved.
The vice squad arrests and Koba’s latest programme have fuelled furious debate in Ukrainian society on whether to legalise and regulate prostitution to help prevent corruption, abuse of sex workers and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. Some argue that revenue from one of Ukraine’s few thriving industries should flow into treasury coffers rather than police pockets.
But they also highlight a deep-rooted flaw in the country’s law enforcement structure that goes well beyond the prostitution debate and cuts right to the heart of the grievances behind last year’s revolution, frequently depicted as a simple geopolitical struggle between autocratic Russia and the democratic West over the future of Ukraine.
In fact, protest had begun to spill over into unrest well before then-President Yanukovych abandoned the Association Agreement with the EU. In July 2013 Ukraine was rocked by news that two police officers and a taxi driver in Vradiyivka had gang-raped and savagely beaten a 29-year-old woman police claimed to be a prostitute but who was in fact walking home from a nightclub. They left her for dead in a forest with a fractured skull.
After the attack, Vradiyivka residents laid siege to the local police station, burned it to the ground and marched in protest to Kiev. The following week Kiev residents assailed a police station after media reported a police officer had punched a young woman in the stomach.
Frustrated with police criminality and lack of accountability, Ukrainians were increasingly taking the law into their own hands. Indeed, it was police violence against the few hundred remaining pro-Europe demonstrators on 30 November that galvanised a small Euromaidan protest into a revolution involving hundreds of thousands of people.
Since then, the post-revolutionary government has done little to address systemic police criminality, focusing instead on replacing old foes in law enforcement with allies. The vice squad arrests appear little more than window-dressing, not taken seriously by the law enforcement colleagues that are expected to investigate and prosecute them.
“Prostitution is the 25th problem right now that Ukrainian society is worried about,” Alyona Yakhno, a spokeswoman for the Kiev prosecutor’s office, responded when asked by Newsweek why criminal cases had not been brought against the dismissed vice squad chiefs.
“Because we have a lot of real problems – there is a war and [dropping] exchange rates. The last thing I’m interested in is prostitutes. The last thing.”
Under the Ukrainian criminal system, it’s up to the local prosecutor’s office to investigate police officers accused of an offence, but the officials are usually colleagues with whom the accused work regularly. A 2013 Amnesty International report showed that of 114,474 complaints made about police officers in the preceding year, only 1,750 were investigated.
That system was finally due for a shake-up this spring after Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko signed a law reforming the Soviet-era prosecutor’s office, but on 21 April ex-internal affairs minister Yuriy Lutsenko, who himself served a jail term for corruption, led a successful parliamentary initiative to postpone implementation of the law until July. Reform campaigners fear the delay will now be used to make amendments to the law aimed at preserving the old, corrupted system.
“Little has changed in terms of curbing police criminality,” says Amnesty International’s Ukraine office director Tetyana Mazur. “The recent postponement of prosecutorial reform is a setback for justice – the new government must learn from the mistakes of the old and introduce an independent police complaints process without delay. Ukrainians have already demonstrated once they will not tolerate abuse from the very people supposed to protect them.”