Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Ukraine, New Law On Rallies Raises Fears Of Election Clampdown

Opposition supporters shout slogans during a protest in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on July 30.
KYIV -- Requiring organizers to provide advance notice before they hold a rally is standard practice in most democracies and is not usually considered threatening.

But in Ukraine, that provision is one of the controversial aspects of Bill 2450, the draft law on freedom of peaceful assembly, which goes to a vote in parliament on September 20.

In Ukraine's supercharged political atmosphere, where trust between rivals is rare, opposition supporters say the two-day advance notice provision and others in the bill just give the government the means to block protests the authorities oppose.

"[The bill] introduces time limits and the possibility of bringing charges against organizers," said Anna Khvyl, who was one of a hundred or so young Ukrainians protesting outside the parliament building on September 17. "If the organizers cannot ensure the proper behavior of every participant, the gathering may be banned. The gathering can also be banned because certain areas, such as parks, are deemed inappropriate for holding rallies. This leaves room for manipulations and restrictions on gatherings."

The draft law would hold organizers responsible for safety at rallies and could punish them, as well as individual offenders, for any unrest. At the same time, the draft law does not specify where rallies can be held, something critics say leaves it up to authorities to interpret at will.

Protecting The Public

Ukraine's ombudsman, Valeria Lutkovska, said on September 17 that the law "is necessary, but it must be adopted with the changes to other laws; otherwise, it will turn from the progressive document into a repressive one."

Pro-government deputies who proposed the law argue it will increase public safety at events by making organizers more accountable and thus protect the public's right to assemble peacefully.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Opposition parties see the rush to pass the law now – just weeks ahead of the election – as just one of a host of initiatives to tighten the government's control over the streets and media to remain in power.

Opinion polls show President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions running neck-and-neck with the rival Fatherland Party of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

In addition to the law on demonstrations, government is also pushing a new draft law on libel that passed through a first reading in parliament on September 18. It would return libel cases to the jurisdiction of criminal courts and include imprisonment as a possible punishment.

Libel cases have been tried in civil courts since 2001 as part of freedom of speech reforms and today are punishable by fines.

Intimidating Critics

The proposed legal rollback follows the authorities' move earlier this year to investigate TVi, the only television channel reporting on government corruption. Many regional cable operators have since dropped the channel. The president's opponents called the investigation an attempt to intimidate critics.

Also part of the clampdown is a counterterror directive by the government on September 17. It instructs security agencies and the state broadcaster to prevent the dissemination of material calling for the overthrow of the state system or urging actions against public order.

Opposition leaders call the counterterror law a preemptive strike to silence people's right to protest if they deem next month's election unfair.

Opposition lawmaker Serhiy Sobolev says any antigovernment rally could be deemed a threat.

"Essentially, matters that may or may not be regulated by the law are left at the mercy [of the government]," Sobolev says. "That is why this has been done, I think, so that any mass gathering could fall under these rules."

Some observers see the government initiatives in the same light as its recent purchase of water cannon for riot control. They signal the government's readiness to crack down hard on postelection protests.

"Some participants in the political process call on their voters to take to the streets in the event of election fraud,"
says Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst. "But many members of the current government have a Maidan complex. They remember the 2004 events, which were linked to elections, all too well. I think these decisions are generated by such fears."

Tensions Rising

Both Yanukovych and his opponents remember the sea of protesters who camped out in Kyiv's central Independence Square (Maidan), after his allegedly rigged victory in the 2004 presidential election.

Yanukovych was subsequently forced to step aside as the original election results were annulled. Rival Viktor Yushchenko came to power in the re-vote, which was monitored by domestic and international observers and declared free and fair.

With election day fast approaching, tensions between Ukraine's political camps are rising daily.

One parliamentarian calls the new counterterror directive necessary to protect against increasing radicalization.

"Some politicians, in my opinion, are losing their minds and their self-control," says Volodymyr Oliynyk, first deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on legislative support for law enforcement. "Some of them want to speak more radically and are even prepared to use force. But the government is monitoring the situation, and when their analysis leads to certain conclusions, I think that such a decision is a better option than arrangements made by telephone or in one-on-one meetings with the chief of a government agency. This is a normal public policy."

But it is exactly the question of how the new laws and directives will be implemented that worries the opposition. The vaguely worded language leaves it up to the same authorities who will enforce the new measures to decide when and to where to apply them.

Written by Charles Recknagel in Prague, based on reporting by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Dmytro Shurkhalo in Kyiv