Meet Ukraine’s Ballsiest Politician

Feb 28, 2014 at 8:14 AM ET

Ukrainian politicians are their own special brand of heavyweights. Their ranks include actual boxing champions and people unafraid to settle parliamentary fights with bare fists. But one man is emerging as perhaps the ballsiest, most consistent heavy hitter in an increasingly hostile and unstable environment: Arsen Avakov.

Avakov, who became acting Interior Minister just this week, is fast dismantling the regime of his predecessor Viktor Yanukovych.

First, he issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovych on Monday for the “mass murder of peaceful citizens.” Hundreds of protesters died in Kiev during clashes with police in January and February, the bulk of those deaths happening last week just before the activists forced the ruling government out.

Then, Avakov disbanded the Berkut, the riot police who violently suppressed the Euromaidan protests from November 2013 until last week. Berkut beat, abused, shot at and killed protesters. Some of them found themselves on their knees, begging for forgiveness from the opposition, after Yanukovych was toppled.

Avakov is also social-media savvy—he has posted these announcements to his Facebook page.

His other big move was to announce that the abductors of well-known activists Igor Lutsenko and Yuri Verbitsky had been found and detained. Lutsenko got international attention when he showed up beaten and tortured a few days after disappearing from a hospital. Verbitsky, who was abducted at the same time, met a harsher fate and died of his injuries. The death galvanized the Euromaidan movement, as Verbitsky’s name became a war cry.

Avakov, who was a member of parliament before taking over the Interior Ministry, confirmed that their abductors were working with government and security forces, as was previously suspected.

It’s all a far cry from Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who was Interior Minister under Yanukovych. As one of the ex-President’s closest allies, and a family friend, Zakharchenko has also been named in the arrest warrant for mass murder and was caught trying to flee Ukraine a few days ago.

The new acting minister has some experience himself with exile: After he left the ruling party in 2010 and joined former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, he was charged with illegally transferring property and put on Interpol’s wanted list. Avakov was detained in Italy in 2012 and put under house arrest, but returned to Ukraine in December of that year after being elected to Parliament. The charges were eventually dropped, and Avakov says they were politically motivated. Yanukovych threw Tymoshenko in jail, but the Ukrainian parliament voted to release her over the weekend.

Now Yanukovych has fled to Russia, where the authorities are giving him shelter and media access so that he can continue his fight remotely. He’s gave a press conference today from southern Russia, where he said he’s still President, only fled because he feared for his life, and he plans to continue fighting.