The Berkut are the country’s successor to the Soviet UNI0N’s OMON (Otryad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya). Created in 1979, this Special Purpose Mobile Unit was, ironically, in preparation for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to ensure “no terrorist incidents”. Manned by former Soviet Army soldiers and Afghan vets, they remained operational following the Olympics as riot police. Their mandate: emergency deployment only.
The Beginnings Of The Berkut
On 28 December 1988, an order was made to organise an OMON in the Ukrainian SSR. The first units were formed in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv, Odesa, and Donetsk, and comprised of select Soviet Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. With Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the OMON here were replaced by quick reaction force (QRF) units or Berkut on 16 January 1992, and fully implemented by 1993, their main stated purpose was crowd control.
These special police units were at one time semi-autonomous and governed at the local or regional level, with a unit in every major city and every oblast. However, in the autumn of 2010, Viktor Yanukovych returned Ukraine to the presidential system defined by the 1996 constitution, placing all security forces under his control. The Jamestown Foundation, a non-partisan research institute in the US, called this move “the Putinisation of Ukraine’s security force”, and accused Yanukovych of using the Berkut as his “Praetorian Guard”.
As of January 2008, the force consisted of two regiments, six separate battalions, and 19 companies totalling 3,250 members. That number is estimated to have risen to 4,000 as of January 2014.
A Scandalous History
Throughout their more than 20-year history, the Berkut have been used in many ways to support the nefarious actions of Ukrainian governments. The Jamestown Foundation accuses them of being put to use for racketeering purposes and applying political pressure using physical intimidation. Expert in Ukrainian political, economic, and security affairs Taras Kuzio says their methods include the intimidation of anti-government demonstrators and influencing the electoral process. Ihor Lutsenko – abducted, beaten and left for dead by Berkut earlier this month – call them “kidnappers and torturers”.
18 July 1995 – Black Tuesday. Berkut attack mourners during the burial of Patriarch Volodymyr Romaniuk. Romaniuk was an ex-political prisoner (member of Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) who had been imprisoned by the communist Soviets for 17 years, and exiled after his release. He returned to Ukraine with the onset of Perestroika to become Bishop, then Archbishop, and finally Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchy, which was seen as a split from the Russian Orthodox Church. He died under mysterious circumstances less than two years later. Permission to bury the Patriarch inside Saint Sophia Cathedral was refused by then president Leonid Kuchma, and so a makeshift grave was made just outside the cathedral, which signalled the arrival of Berkut who fired tear gas on and beat with truncheons a crowd of 1,000 mourners.
24 August 1998 – Independence Day in Luhansk. Berkut attack miners demanding payment of two-and-a-half years’ salary in arrears in front of the Luhansk Regional State Administration. Application for peaceful protest by the miners was made ahead of Independence Day celebrations, and included a procession with the burning of an effigy. It garnered an unusually large police presence, including those in “track suits”, who warned the miners to call off the march after being “tipped” about an explosive device in the effigy. Negotiations between the miners and the Berkut ensued, in the middle of which an attack call made by the special units was made. The miners were beaten severely, with blows to the head, face, kidneys, as well as the use of tear gas. Those miners still conscious took to the tarmac, thinking they would not be beaten sitting down. They were wrong, and continued to be kicked and hit with truncheons, with dozens arrested.
15 December 2000 – March 2001 – Ukraine without Kuchma. Berkut attack protestors and destroy camps. Protesters gathered on Maidan Nezalezhnosti demanding the resignation of then president Leonid Kuchma after the disappearance of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. The movement grew into a mass campaign, widely supported by students, opposition activists, and more than a dozen political parties, with broad Western support. Tent encampments were set up, with other Ukrainian cities joining the protests. Attempts to destroy the camp were made using Berkut and masked provocateurs, with a fence going up to prevent large crowds from gathering citing construction work as the reason. On 9 March 2001, Berkut stormed the square, injuring dozens, and making mass arrests. Documentary Oblychia Protestu (The Face of Protest) details the events in full.
22 November 2004 – 23 January 2005 – Orange Revolution. Berkut are called in to put down protests. Protests are prompted after the run-off presidential vote is marred with massive corruption, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud. Acting on behalf of the Kuchma regime, the Berkut are called in to put down the protests, and participate in numerous actions against the opposition. They are called back by the SBU and the military to “avoid bloodshed”.
November 2011 – Donetsk pensioners’ protest. Berkut attack protestors. Thirty Chornobyl survivors protest reductions in their state pensions for their part in fighting the 1986 disaster by hunger strike in Donetsk. The courts rule the protest illegal, and in storm the Berkut. A 68-year-old pensioner dies.
3 July 2012 – New language law protests. Berkut attack protestors. Hundreds of people take to the street in protest of the new language law, effectively giving Russian language official status in Ukraine. Berkut use their truncheons and tear gas on the crowd.
28 November 2012 – Ukrainian Parliamentary elections. Berkut storm election precincts. Berkut assisted regional governors in securing victories for pro-regime candidates through electoral fraud by storming election precincts, taking away counted votes and spraying tear gas to disperse those protesting against the fraudulent practices.
22 November 2013 – ongoing – EuroMaidan. Berkut beat, shoot at, terrorise, kidnap, and kill protestors, medics, journalists...
Berkut Or Substitute?
A recent edict is being circulated that the number of Berkut is to be increased six-fold. However, that is not the only issue at hand concerning Ukraine’s special forces. According to blogger v_n_zb on Live Journal, which quotes the Kavkaz Centre – an independent Chechen-based Internet agency, there are “FSB death squads operating in Ukraine”. It gives a list of such men, and says should you come across them, “Speak to them only in Ukrainian, which should identify them immediately.”
This might be passed off as paranoia perhaps, until the same thing is reported by the former head of the SBU (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainiy, Security Service of Ukraine) Press Service (2005) Stanislav Rechinksy. Picked up on various news sites on 22 January, Rechinsky believes Ukraine is facing a “Russian invasion”, and says various reports that experts, trained to kill, from Russia’s FSB (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopastnosti, Federal Security Service), have come into the country and are posing as Berkut officers. “I’m not making excuses for our Berkut – they are similar scum. However, the abduction of Ihor Lutsenko and the murder of Yuriy Verbitsy closely resemble Russian tactics – it was all so cleanly executed.”
ORD is a local news website reporting on the world of crime and other security forces, of which Rechinsky is editor in chief. Having served two years in Afghanistan (1982–84), he is no stranger the underbelly of crime, and goes on record in an editorial written 23 January, saying, “I know Ukrainian cops well. And I have seen Russian cops [in Kyiv] repeatedly.” The difference, he says is that the bulk of our police force are thieves and louts, but they are not real killers. The Russians, those who have been to Chechnya with the FSB are very different: “They are men without any complexes.”
Of course, he has no proof. He says, however, that word is circulating that the Russian experts are trying to teach the Berkut to behave like “real men”. Case in point: Mykhailo Gavryliuk: taken, beaten, stripped, and tortured in sub-zero temperatures. “Read about the memories of the Chechen war,” Rechinsky says. “The Russian OMON also enjoyed these kinds of games. They are teaching our Berkut that killing is fun and easy. And our Berkut so want to become adults like their Russian counterparts.”
Almost lyrical in his discourse of the current situation in Ukraine, Rechinsky waxes poetically, “The north wind has brought the stench of cadavers. The smell comes from all over: the SBU and the Berkut. From Kluyev and Lukash, From the Parliament and the Cabinet. From Yanukovych. It’s the smell of death and corpses. It’s the smell of Putin.”
by Lana Nicole