Ukraine enacts harsh laws against protests

Video: Thousands of anti-government demonstrators clashed with riot police in Kiev Sunday, attacking officers with stones and flares and setting fire to a police bus after new laws were passed to stifle protests. Dozens of people were injured.

MOSCOW — Russians love to think of their neighbors the Ukrainians as their “little brothers,” and not a few Ukrainians feel the same way.

That gives Russia considerable sway in Ukraine. Its gravitational pull succeeded in keeping the smaller country from falling into a European orbit in November, when Kiev, under pressure from Moscow, suddenly backed off a deal with the European Union.

A boy with toy gun poses for picture in front of barricades at the police headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, April 17, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Ukraine's government needs to provide guarantees to its Russian-speaking population in the east of the country to resolve the crisis. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

A boy with a toy gun poses in front of the barricaded police headquarters in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine.

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In December, the Ukrainian government started working out a new financial relationship with its big neighbor. Now Kiev is trying to be more like Moscow in legal ways, as well — enacting Friday a set of draconian laws that would prohibit almost any protest, curtail freedom of speech, hobble the press, enable the government to ban citizens from using the Internet and classify advocacy groups as “foreign agents” if they receive money from abroad.

But the outrage that immediately swept through the Ukrainian opposition, as well as the vows to stand firm against what was variously called a coup or a putsch, demonstrated one key difference between the two countries: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych may wish he had the firm grip of Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, but he doesn’t.

The opposition in Ukraine consists of people who don’t have much fraternal affection for Russia.

“Everything that Yanukovych does to usurp power — that’s their method, the method of their regime,” Oleg Tyagnibok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, said at a Friday news conference. “Their goal is to copy the Russian and North Korean methods. Yanukovych has started learning, little by little, to be a dictator.”

The legislation — rushed through a tumultuous parliament Thursday and signed into law by Yanukovych late Friday — gives the authorities far-reaching power to outlaw most forms of protest. But no one is sure whether Yanukovych will have the nerve to use that power against the continuing protest at an encampment in Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square.

Twice before he has sent police to clear the Maidan, and twice he has revived what had been a flagging opposition.

His imprisoned nemesis, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, issued a scathing statement Friday.

“This isn’t just a blatant crime, for which those guilty, when the time comes, will face criminal liability,” she said. “It’s also the final step in the elimination of Ukrainian parliamentarism as the main branch of government in Ukraine.

“Today, by deliberately killing parliamentarism, [Yanukovych] took another major step toward establishing dictatorship in Ukraine.”

The opposition launched the protests when Ukraine turned its back on the European trade deal in November, and they later widened into demands for Yanukovych to resign and corruption to be stamped out. Yanukovych has said he still hopes to pursue ties with the European Union, but the new legislation does little to support that assertion.

U.S. and European leaders also offered strong criticism of the legislation. “We believe deeply that the people of Ukraine want to affiliate, they want to be associated with Europe,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday, adding that the new laws “are anti-democratic, they’re wrong, they are taking from the people of Ukraine their choice and their opportunity for the future.”

“These laws amount to an anti-democratic putsch which scuppers all previous democratic progress Ukraine has made,” Rebecca Harms, a leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, said in a statement.

Warning of “catastrophic consequences for Ukrainian society,” she said: “The EU cannot leave this draconian move, which undermines existing agreements, unanswered. If the legislation enters into force, the EU must respond with serious sanctions against all members of the government and their families, freezing European bank accounts and revoking EU entry visas.”

Catherine Ashton, the top diplomat for the E.U., said the legislation curtailing freedom of speech, of the press and of the right to assembly forces Ukraine to violate its international obligations.

“There can be no business as usual with Kiev,” tweeted Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara lashed back, accusing the Western officials of interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs — a criticism that Russia frequently levels against the West as well.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Ukraine planned to join neither the E.U. nor Putin’s new Eurasian Customs Union.

Yuri Lutsenko, an opposition leader who was released from the hospital Friday after suffering a concussion in a police beating this month, told the Kommersant-Ukraine newspaper that he believes the security services have taken control of the government from Yanukovych and are receiving orders from another country. He didn’t specify which one, but it is clear he meant Russia.

An editor at the English-language Kyiv Post, Katya Gorchinskaya, ended her column Friday this way: “Welcome to the new police state. We call it Little Russia.”

Another opposition leader, the former boxer Vitali Klitschko, said the new legislation amounts to a coup d’etat and joined calls for a large turnout of protesters Sunday, new laws notwithstanding. He also said he plans to travel throughout the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine — Yanukovych’s heartland — to drum up support for the protest.

The new laws make it a crime to, among other things, wear a helmet at a demonstration. On the Internet television channel Hromadske TV on Friday, a news announcer was wearing a construction helmet even though he was in the studio. Some protesters in the Maidan tied kitchen colanders to their heads.

Another group of protesters marched up the steep hill that leads to the presidential administration building and laid wreaths there, holding a mock funeral for democracy.

The permanent protest camp has shrunk since the beginning of the year, although it has shown no sign of going away.

On Friday, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions issued a statement applauding the new legislation as “an effective means in fighting terrorist actions and political extremism.”

The statement continued: “We will not allow opposition extremists to turn Ukraine into another hot spot on the global map.”

Yanukovych on Friday dismissed the chief of his administration and accepted the resignation of his press secretary.

 
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