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Does 'Black Thursday' Mark End Of Ukraine's Democratic Decade?

  • Daisy Sindelar

The legislation appears aimed at shutting down the boisterous pro-European protests that have convulsed Kyiv since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an EU Association Agreement in November in favor of closer ties with Russia.

The legislation appears aimed at shutting down the boisterous pro-European protests that have convulsed Kyiv since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an EU Association Agreement in November in favor of closer ties with Russia.

With a disorderly show of hands, the Ukrainian parliament appears to have not only shut down the country's pro-European protests, but rolled back an entire decade of reforms that once made Ukraine the leader of the post-Soviet neighborhood's democratic hopes.

Pro-presidential lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada on January 16 passed a package of radical legislation that cracks down on street protests, strips opposition politicians of immunity, and imposes a raft of free-speech restrictions that have critics crying censorship.

Most immediately, the legislation appears aimed at shutting down the boisterous pro-European protests that have convulsed the capital, Kyiv, since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an EU Association Agreement in November in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Longer term, the proposals could have damning consequences for Ukrainian civil society and independent journalism, which continued to flourish even as Yanukovych, in office since 2010, began to roll back reforms.

"The law fully restricts all types of expression, across all platforms. It makes it possible to shut down websites, block access to the Internet. It makes it possible to control all SIM cards so they can track any person who says something bad about the government at a forum, on blogs, or even from a mobile phone," says Taras Shevchenko, the director of the Kyiv-based Media Law Institute. "This 'bad' thing can be labeled as extremism, defamation, slander, insulting law enforcement or judges -- whatever is needed."

Surpassing Russia, Belarus

Opposition lawmakers attempted to block the parliament session, prompting scuffles that left one deputy with a split lip and another with a bloody forehead. But they failed to prevent Yanukovych's Party of Regions from leading a slapdash, show-of-hands vote that they say legitimately passed the measures.

Yanukovych's official website announced he had signed the bill into law on January 17, imposing some of the strictest limitations on public activity seen in Ukraine since the Soviet era.

The legislation bans protesters from placing tents in public places and using helmets and other protective gear, which the bill's authors say encourages violent clashes with the authorities. In addition, it strips immunity from lawmakers who participate in unauthorized protests -- a clear move against opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, who have appeared regularly at the Euromaidan protests.
Ukrainian opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk (left) and Vitali Klitschko (right) appear at a rally on Kyiv's Independence Square December 2013.

Ukrainian opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk (left) and Vitali Klitschko (right) appear at a rally on Kyiv's Independence Square December 2013.


It also loosens interpretations of libel and envisions stiff penalties of up to two years' jail time for violations. (Russia, by contrast, imposes only fines under its 2012 libel law.) In a clear nod to Moscow's own legislation, the Ukrainian bill grants the government the right to refuse registration to any NGOs that receive foreign funding.

Vasyl Filipchuk, the former director of the Ukrainian cabinet's EU-integration department, says he was "deeply shocked" by the turn of events. "Some of these new rules are not even imposed in Russia or Belarus, so my fear is that President Yanukovych decided to be more authoritarian, more aggressive in his attacks against his own society than our eastern neighbors," he adds.

The surprise move by the Ukrainian parliament has drawn rapid condemnation from Ukrainian activists, many of whom have dubbed the legislation the "dictatorship bill."

"Here in Ukraine, we once had human rights. Now we're still human. But we have next to no rights," deputy editor Katya Gorchinskaya wrote in the English-language "Kyiv Post." She added: "Welcome to the new police state. We call it Little Russia."

From Partnership To...Dissolution?

Several EU officials have expressed concern that the restrictive legislation violates Ukraine's international obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and the holder of an EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

READ MORE: New Law Draws International Condemnation

It remains uncertain, however, what the West can do at this late stage to affect Yanukovych's thinking in a season that has seen a dizzying reversal of course in Ukraine, once the regional vanguard of EU integration efforts.

Kyiv was the first of the Eastern Partnership countries to conclude negotiations for the Association Agreement, and even under Yanukovych seemed willing to risk irritating Moscow in return for closer ties with the West.

As the largest and most powerful of the six partnership countries, Kyiv was expected to take a historic step with the signing of the association deal at November's Vilnius summit -- particularly after Armenia's sudden withdrawal from the pact in favor of joining a Russian-led customs union.

WATCH: Ukrainians voice concern at 'scary' new laws.


Paul Ivan, an analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Center, says Ukraine for months attempted to maintain a balance between Russia and the EU by "deciding not to decide" which path to take. Now, he says, the government's choice is beyond doubt -- and may leave smaller partnership neighbors to wonder whether they will be the next to succumb to pressure from Moscow.

"Now in these days we have a better image of the true colors of the regime. With these measures, they much more clearly said 'no' to Europe," Ivan says. "This does affect their relations with the other Eastern Partnership members. A Ukraine that would have signed the Association Agreement would have made life much easier for Moldova, especially, since it's an immediate neighbor, but also for Georgia. It also gives a boost to President [Vladimir] Putin to create his Eurasian Union."

Observers worry the decision spells a decisive end to an eventful decade that began with the pro-democratic Orange Revolution and appeared prepared to end on an optimistic note with the massive Euromaidan protests.

Now, they say, the democratic experiment appears to be over. Looking at Ukraine's sharp internal divides, Filipchuk says he's worried there may be even more dire consequences to come. "I'm really afraid that it's even more than the end of Ukrainian democracy. I'm very much afraid that even Ukrainian statehood and Ukrainian independence and Ukrainian territorial integrity can be under attack," he says.

"Maybe they feel that in order to rule this country in a secure and prosperous for them personally manner, they cannot rule the whole of the country and they might be tempted to somehow consider some regions as not necessarily part of Ukraine, to ensure that they control all of the country. I hope this craziness will stop. Let's hope it will not take place."

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

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