West fears for Ukraine’s democracy as opposition accuses regime of ‘coup’
New law criminalises much of the anti-government activity that has gripped swathes of the country for two months
Pro-European integration supporters attend a rally against newly approved laws near the presidential administration in Kiev. Photograph: Reuters/Gleb Garanich
The European Union and United States have expressed alarm at a law hastily adopted by Ukraine’s parliament that appears to be aimed at crushing the nation’s protest movement.
Opposition leaders accuse allies of president Viktor Yanukovich of staging a “coup” and seeking to turn Ukraine into a “dictatorship”, after they rushed through measures to criminalise much of the anti-government activity that has gripped swathes of the country for two months.
Since Mr Yanukovich rejected a historic deal with the EU in late November in favour of repairing ties with Russia, pro-Western demonstrators have occupied a square and two buildings in central Kiev, rallied in large numbers in other cities and driven in convoy to officials’ homes.
The new law bans protesters from setting up tents, stages or amplifiers in public places without official permission, and threatens them with up to 15 years in jail for preventing people entering buildings and for the “mass violation” of public order. It also criminalises the dissemination of libellous and “extremist” material, a vaguely defined measure opponents say is intended to silence dissent and calls to oust the authorities, and foresees tighter control of mobile phone ownership and internet content.
The legislation also prohibits the wearing of masks and helmets at protests – many demonstrators now don head protection after baton-wielding riot police injured scores of people – and forbids drivers from travelling in private convoys of more than five vehicles.
Opposition deputies said they are the targets of simplified procedures to strip politicians of parliamentary immunity and – in one of several passages to mirror controversial Russian legislation – the law forces non-governmental groups with funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”.
The bill’s explanatory note read: “Events linked to protests are being used by certain domestic and foreign forces to further destabilise the life of our country for their own purposes . . . The state cannot stand by and ignore threats to national security – the situation needs immediate intervention to maintain order.”
The law was passed in parliament on Thursday by the pro-Yanukovich majority with a quick show of hands, without any debate or public consultation. The measures were signed into force last night by Mr Yanukovich.
“This is a clear move to a dictatorial regime,” said the party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. “It is a coup, the organisers and implementers of which should be punished.”
Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said parliament’s actions “cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms”.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply concerned” by “legislation restricting the Ukrainian citizens’ fundamental rights” and urged Mr Yanukovich to “ensure that these decisions are revised”. Mr Yanukovich claims that despite taking a $15 billion (€11 billion) emergency bail-out from Russia, he still intends to sign an association agreement with Brussels.
But EU’s enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele denounced the new law as “contradicting European aspirations and commitments from the association agreement”.
Andrew Wilson, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr Yanukovich’s allies sought to end the protests “with a new law banning more or less everything. . . they have attempted to criminalise everything the opposition has been doing in the last two months”.