Arsen Avakov served as interior minister for 7.5 years, under four prime ministers and two presidents. His era ended on July 15. While many celebrated his resignation, the future of the key ministry remains grim, even after Avakov’s exit.
In February 2014, low-key politician Arsen Avakov became the interior minister in the temporary government created during the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Seven years, four months and 18 days later, Avakov resigned from the job as one of the most powerful people in Ukraine.
Avakov served under two presidents and four prime ministers. He survived dozens of scandals and protests demanding his resignation.
The era of Avakov ended abruptly when he filed a resignation letter on July 13. Two days later, parliament approved it with 291 votes.
During his seven years in office, Avakov held enormous sway over Ukraine, commanding an army of 200,000 law enforcers and influencing radical groups.
He also was the only top official with his own influence, not dependent on President Volodymyr Zelensky. His resignation — reportedly on a mutual agreement with Zelensky — removes a counter-balance to the president who already controls the parliament, Cabinet, and law enforcement.
Political Analyst Volodymyr Fesenko says that Zelensky has “finally outgrown Avakov.”
“Zelensky has been in power two years, he gained strength, confidence, his office gained political weight, they came to the conclusion that they don’t need to rely on Avakov for stability anymore,” says Fesenko. “The time had come to install a loyalist to lead the ministry.”
Avakov, 57, has said nothing of his plans. His resignation comes just months before the mayoral elections in his hometown, Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine.
Ukrainian activists, lawmakers and human rights groups have demanded the removal of Avakov for years. Yet his resignation came as a surprise.
Avakov was able to capitalize on the change of government after the EuroMaidan Revolution, increasing his political weight ever since.
He was appointed Interior Minister in February 2014, days after then-President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power. Taking command of law enforcement agencies, Avakov suddenly found himself among the most powerful people in the country.
His influence only grew as Russia annexed Crimea and ignited a war in the Donbas.
The newly-created 60,000-strong National Guard and dozens of semi-independent volunteer battalions under Avakov’s command made him a mighty powerbroker.
Avakov also received political backing, when the People’s Front party which he co-led with thenPrime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, won 82 out of 450 seats during the 2014 parliament elections.
When Yatsenyuk’s government resigned, Avakov remained. He was too powerful even for then-President Petro Poroshenko to dislodge.
The adult in the room
Surprisingly for many, Avakov was able to keep his post after Zelensky took office.
Avakov successfully distanced himself from the dying People’s Front party and allied with Zelensky prior to the 2019 presidential elections.
Being the only experienced politician around Zelensky, “he ‘ sold’ stability to the young president,” says Fesenko.
In the early days of Zelensky’s presidency, Avakov accompanied the president on his trip to Paris, took part in the four-sided Normandy Format meeting on the future of Donbas and met Pope Francis in the Vatican.
Zelensky called him “one of the most effective state officials.”
Avakov was also tapped to control the streets. He maintained close ties with Andriy Biletsky, founder of Azov volunteer regiment, which answered to Avakov’s Interior Ministry. Biletsky, who knew Avakov since at least 2005, took charge of the National Corps, a nationalist political party. For a time, the National Corps had an active presence on the streets of Kyiv.
Biletsky became the face of the nationalist scene. He was loyal to Avakov.
“Avakov was a major stabilizing factor, who keeps the ministry in check, who controls the streets, who maintains bureaucratic stability because Zelensky’s first government was young and inexperienced,” says Fesenko.
Besides having strong ties to radical groups, Avakov’s long rule was also marked by corruption and lack of justice.
Anti-corruption activists argued that Avakov made it impossible for them to oust corrupt officers. Activists left the police vetting commissions in 2016. Only 5,656 police officers, or about 6 percent of the police force, were eventually fired as a result of the vetting procedure.
The rape of a woman in rural Kaharlyk and the fatal shooting of a five-year-old boy in Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky by drunk police officers have been the most recent, lurid cases of police violence in Ukraine.
“The rape of a woman in the police department in Kaharlyk it’s the tip of the iceberg, it just showed us the fraction of to what extent the police are unreformed,” says Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center.
Under Avakov’s watch, the National Police was accused of sabotaging high-profile investigations and failing to solve criminal cases.
Among them was the murder of Kateryna Gandziuk, a whistleblower and a local official, who died in November 2018 following an acid attack, and Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car explosion in Kyiv in July 2016.
In Gandziuk’s case, the police initially arrested an apparent scapegoat and went after actual perpetrators only after street protests erupted demanding a fair investigation.
Sheremet’s case is ongoing and has seemingly reached a dead end. After years of inactivity, in December 2019, Avakov detained a handful of suspects and invited Zelensky to take part in the highly publicized event.
Nearly two years later, the case has yet to move to court, lacking strong evidence. The suspects were released on house arrest after more than a year in pre-trial detention.
The case became the capstone of public dissatisfaction with Avakov.
“I don’t know if these people (the suspects) are guilty,” said Zelensky in May. “If they are proven to be not guilty, there will be a serious conversation with Avakov.”
“From the time Zelensky was inserted into the Sheremet case it became a time bomb for Avakov,” says Fesenko.
Corruption allegations have also been brought forward against Avakov’s allies.
In 2017, Avakov’s son Oleksandr and the minister’s ex-deputy, Serhiy Chebotar, were charged by the National Anti- Corruption Bureau with embezzling Hr 14 million ($550,000) by supplying overpriced backpacks to the Interior Ministry. Both were taped by NABU discussing the scheme.
However, the case was closed a year later.
According to the Rating Group poll, Avakov’s disapproval rating peaked at 68% in March 2021 when protests against the minister became regular.
Avakov was always unpopular but he survived several government changes under Poroshenko and Zelensky. Each prime minister praised Avakov for “professionalism.”
According to Fesenko the main reason for Avakov’s dismissal was that the president wants a loyal appointee leading the ministry.
“Avakov was loyal, yet independent,” Fesenko said.
For activists and opposition lawmakers, who have long demanded Avakov’s ousting, a simple resignation isn’t enough.
“Avakov must be held responsible,” said lawmaker Oleksandra Ustinova, representing the 20-member Voice party, during a parliament meeting on July 15. “This responsibility must be conveyed not just in his dismissal, but also in his criminal responsibility for forgeries, murders and torture associated with the National Police.”
That’s unlikely. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party has praised the minister even after his resignation, calling him a “professional” and “patriot.”
Kaleniuk said that the way Avakov was let go shows that he must have some kind of an agreement with Zelensky.
Servant of the People party head Oleksandr Kornienko said that he wanted Avakov to represent the party in the upcoming Kharkiv mayoral elections. Avakov launched his business and political career in Kharkiv in the late 1990s and maintained close ties with the city.
“Of course, I don’t see a better option for Kharkiv than Arsen (Avakov),” said Kornienko.
Kharkiv council member Dmytro Bulakh says that Avakov is unlikely to win the mayoral race.
“He’s highly unpopular in Kharkiv,” says Bulakh, who is in opposition to the government. “Same as everywhere else.”
Fesenko thinks Avakov can’t compete for an elected office but his honorable retirement leaves the door open to future appointments.
“This is not the end of Avakov,’ he said.