Ukraine criminalises pro-EU protests
EU and US diplomats have voiced dismay after Ukraine on Thursday (16 January) criminalised almost every aspect of the pro-EU protest movement.
President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of the Regions rushed through the legislation via show of hands in parliament.
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Reports say that electronic tellers in the Verkhovna Rada kept flashing up a figure of 235 votes in favour just a few seconds after each round of voting, before the hands could be counted.
The laws impose fines of up to $1,275 a head or 15 days’ detention on people who install or supply equipment, such as tents or loudspeakers, at opposition rallies, who wear masks, who make “extremist” billboards or who form convoys of five or more cars.
They envisage up to 15 years’ jail for people deemed guilty of “mass violation” of public order.
In broader measures, they ban collection of information, such as corruption dossiers, on judges. They let the government block access to the internet and make it easier to strip opposition MPs of immunity.
In a direct echo of anti-NGO laws in Russia, they also force NGOs which receive foreign funding to register income and classify them as “foreign agents.”
One Ukrainian opposition leader, boxer Vitali Klitschko, reacted by saying: "The people of Ukraine have been deprived of civil rights and liberties.”
The move also drew condemnation from the Lithuanian, Polish and Swedish foreign ministers.
Poland’s Radek Sikorski tweeted: “Ominous events in the Ukrainian parliament today. Has Ukraine decided to take the road away from Europe and European values?”
Sweden’s Carl Bildt said, also on Twitter, that there are “forces pushing [a] Belarus scenario.” He added: “Dark designs against democracy clearly behind what we saw in Kiev today. And ultimately against independence of Ukraine.”
The US state department said in a statement: “Both the process and the substance of the Rada’s actions today cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms.”
The state department has a list of between 10 and 20 Ukrainian officials, including its interior minister, who are to face US travel bans or assett freezes if the situation deteriorates.
EU institutions are less hawkish, with EU officials saying that Belarus sanctions have done little to promote reform in Ukraine’s autocratic neighbour.
But some EU countries’ diplomats also believe that targeted sanctions on Yanukovych allies could work. “The EU is suffering from a Belarus complex. But the situation in Ukraine is completely different: Pro-Yanukovych oligarchs have much more to lose if they go on an EU blacklist,” one contact said.
The "Euromaidan" movement in Ukraine erupted after Yanukovych last year opted for a $15 billion Russian bailout instead of an EU trade treaty.
Between 500 and 2,000 people remain camped out in central Kiev each night.
EU diplomats in the city say there could be a repeat of last November’s events if there is a mass crackdown by police.
A police assault on 30 November prompted up to half a million people to join rallies. Fresh police violence outside a Kiev court last weekend saw 50,000 or so people come out.
“The winter weather has been mild up to now. But the big test [of the protest camp] will come when temperatures fall to minus 15 [degrees Centigrade] later this month or in February,” an EU source noted.
The contact said the “real heros” are isolated pro-EU demonstrators in regional cities in Russophone eastern Ukraine.
“They are beating beaten up and thrown in prison every day,” the source noted.