Just over a year ago, Yuri Lutsenko was manning the barricades and firing up the crowds in Kiev as a key tactician of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution.”
This week, he was in Washington, meeting top U.S. officials and think tank scholars as the new government’s minister of internal affairs, the most powerful law-enforcement post in the country.
“I was always sure that our democratic revolution would someday succeed, but I have to say never in my dreams did I consider that I would be one day sitting in this chair,” Mr. Lutsenko said, speaking through an interpreter in an interview at the Ukrainian Embassy in Georgetown.
“I also think that a lot of the police officers who dealt with me when I was in the opposition never expected this either,” the 42-year-old former electrical engineer added with a smile.
Mr. Lutsenko, a longtime activist against former President Leonid Kuchma, emerged as one of the most charismatic figures of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, which overturned a fraudulent presidential vote and vaulted pro-Western reformer Viktor Yushchenko to power.
With a street-rebel reputation and little administrative experience, Mr. Lutsenko was not the obvious choice to head one of the country’s most powerful ministries, charged with everything from fighting corruption, terrorism and illegal immigration to overseeing Ukraine’s widely resented traffic police.
“Frankly, it was absolutely unexpected for me when the president asked to take this post,” he said.
He said the ministry has made good progress since he took over last February. Among his first acts were to dismiss the ministry’s second in command, who heads the internal security forces, and the administrator of the traffic police.
About 2,500 police officers have been dismissed for failing to meet ministry standards and more than 600 criminal cases against officers have been referred to prosecutors, Mr. Lutsenko said. The ministry is also aggressively targeting official corruption.
Last month, three former Ukrainian police officers went on trial in the 2000 slaying of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze. The long-stalled case proved critical in tarnishing Mr. Kuchma’s rule both at home and abroad.
Mr. Lutsenko’s Washington trip, which included meetings with top State Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials, focused on joint cooperation on issues such as terrorism, immigration and narcotics trafficking. Kiev is also pressing for a bilateral extradition treaty, which the U.S. side has been reluctant to sign.
His trip came at a difficult moment for Mr. Yushchenko. In a nasty public break, his Orange Revolution ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, resigned as prime minister in August and is leading an independent bloc in hotly contested parliamentary elections next month.
Mr. Lutsenko acknowledged the uncertain political climate, but said he had no fears that the democratic, pro-Western ideals of the Orange Revolution were in danger.
“Politicians of every stripe in Ukraine now say they support those ideals,” he said. “We have crossed the Rubicon and there is no going back.”