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Five Issues With Ukraine's 'Occupied Territories' Bill 

People attend a rally in front of the Ukrainian parliament on January 16, calling for lawmakers to recognize Russia as an aggressor state and implement other legislative changes concerning the occupied parts of eastern Ukraine.
People attend a rally in front of the Ukrainian parliament on January 16, calling for lawmakers to recognize Russia as an aggressor state and implement other legislative changes concerning the occupied parts of eastern Ukraine.

Passing legislation that sets a course to bring areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists back into the fold was no formality for Kyiv.

The bill governing state policy on "temporarily occupied" areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions sparked demonstrations on the streets and fisticuffs in the halls of power.

With the raucous debates behind them, Ukrainian lawmakers passed the legislation on January 18, and it is expected to be signed into law by President Petro Poroshenko.

But its critics have pointed out some flaws:

Is It A War? And If So, When Did It Start?

The bill designates Russia as an "aggressor", but does not state explicitly that there is a war in the Donbas, nor does it give a date for the start of hostilities. Critics say this is a serious oversight.

"In order to launch legal proceedings, there needs to be an exact date to establish when the occupation began. This norm was ignored. There was no will to vote to insert February 20, 2014, into the text," says Yuri Derevyanko, a lawmaker with no party affiliation.

Clashes In Kyiv As Key Bill Enters Parliament
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February 20, 2014, is the recognized date on which Russian armed forces first crossed into Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula with the aim of seizing the territory, which it did the following month.

Critics say not establishing a precise date for Russia's intervention in Ukraine could create obstacles in international courts. For example, any Ukrainian from areas occupied by Russia or Russia-backed separatists who sues for damages would need to indicate when Russian intervention began, Derevyanko argues.

Supporters say this is not an obstacle, citing other registered documents that crucially include in their texts the date February 20, 2014, as the start of hostilities.

A Giveaway To Poroshenko?

Some deputies worry that the bill grants the president too much authority. They argue the legislation gives the president the right to determine when and where to deploy Ukraine's armed forces without the consent of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament. It is the president, argue critics of the legislation, who determines if and where Russian troops have encroached on Ukrainian territory.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (file photo)
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (file photo)

"The president already has a mechanism on determining whether the country has been invaded or not: the declaration of martial law. And if this option exists, why hasn't he used it up till now? Instead, he needs more and more powers, as we see with every new law," claims independent parliamentarian Oleh Musiy.

Backers say there is nothing unusual in the legislation. Members of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc (BPP) and others note that the president is not only the head of state in Ukraine, but the commander-in-chief as well.

Military Status Without Obligations?

Critics say a section of the legislation dealing with "security zones" makes insufficient reference to human rights issues and hands too much power to security forces.

In the zones, to be determined by the chief of staff of the armed forces, security forces will be able to wield broad powers. Among other things, security forces will have the right to use weapons, detain citizens, inspect and seize vehicles, and even enter and occupy homes.

This smacks of instituting martial law, says Oleksandra Dvorestskaya, the executive director of the charitable foundation Vostok SOS.

Supporters of the bill say concerns and fears of human rights activists are overblown. Andriy Teteruk, a deputy from the People's Front party, says armed forces will only be used to guarantee the security and reintegration of parts of the Donbas controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

"There are no measures in this bill that will lead to the violation of rights of Ukrainian citizens," Teteruk argues.

Will It Reopen Trade With The Separatists?

Some critics say the legislation gives the green light to resume commercial activities with the separatist-controlled areas. This is because, they believe, it grants the armed forces the authority to determine what is and what isn't essential trade.

Ivan Vinnik, a deputy from the BPP, has called such concerns "absurd, nonsense, and a deliberate provocation."

He notes that the authority for determining the level and type of trade between the separatist-controlled areas and the rest of Ukraine will remain in the hands of the Cabinet of Ministers. The legislation, Vinnik contends, will not change that.

A ban on trade and transport blockade of the east was introduced last year.

Are The Minsk Agreements History?

The bill fails to mention the European-backed peace deals known as the Minsk accords. Critics question whether this could complicate efforts to implement Minsk II, the February 2015 agreement aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

Language regarding the Minsk accords was removed after much debate ahead of the first reading of the bill.

Mykhailo Papiyev, of the Opposition Bloc, said ahead of the January 18 vote that this glaring omission would force the bloc to oppose the legislation.

"Can our Western partners interpret this [passage of the legislation] as proof of Ukraine's withdrawal from the Minsk accords? In my opinion, they can," says Papiyev.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Yana Polyanska
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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