MOSCOW – Anger swept through the Ukrainian opposition Friday after a package of laws that would prohibit almost any type of street protest was rushed through parliament.
The laws appear to borrow heavily from existing Russian legislation and seem to belie Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s declarations that he wants his country to build stronger ties with the European Union.
Under the new laws, any organization receiving money from abroad — which, in Ukraine’s case, includes a huge number of groups including the Greek Catholic Church — must register as “foreign agents,” just as they must in Russia.
The wearing of helmets or use of bullhorns at demonstrations is prohibited, as is the blocking of residential properties or any convoy of five cars or more. Slander would become a criminal offense, according to the bill, and critics said it is so broadly worded that virtually any act of journalism that criticizes the government or a government official could be defined as slander.
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.”
Yuri Lutsenko, an opposition leader who was scheduled to be released from the hospital Friday after suffering a concussion in a police beating this month, told the newspaper Kommersant-Ukraine that he believes security services have taken control of the government from Yanukovych, and that they are receiving orders from another country. He didn’t specify which country, but it was clear he meant Russia.
The hurried passage of the laws Thursday night — by a quick voice vote in a tumultuous Verkhovna Rada, or parliament — brought rapid condemnation from European and American leaders.
“There can be no business as usual with Kiev,” tweeted Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister.
The legislation contradicts Ukraine’s stated European aspirations, said Stefan Fule, the E.U. commissioner on expansion.
“I am deeply concerned by the events in Kyiv,” Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s chief diplomat, said in a statement released Friday. “I am particularly concerned by the changes to the judicial code which impose worrying restrictions on the rights of assembly and on the freedom of speech and media, and are contrary to Ukraine’s international obligations.”
Large protests erupted in Kiev on Nov. 21, after Ukraine suddenly backed away from a trade agreement with the E.U., and have continued since then. In December, Yanukovych has reiterated that he wanted to strike a deal with Europe, even while his government arranged a $15 billion bailout from Russia. Protesters are seeking his resignation. But over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the number of demonstrators in the streets decreased, and it looked more likely that Yanukovych would weather the crisis.
One of the main leaders of the opposition, Vitali Klitschko, said the new legislation amounts to a coup d’etat. He and others called for a large turnout of protesters Sunday.
On an Internet television channel called Hromadske TV, the news announcer on Friday wore a construction helmet, even though he was in the studio. Some protesters in the Maidan, or Independence Square, tied kitchen colanders to their heads in protest.
Many wondered how a law against allowing five or more cars to be gathered in one place could possibly be enforced, given Kiev’s traffic jams.
Opposition leaders began this month to say they are focusing on next year’s presidential elections, as the prospects of ousting Yanukovych dimmed. But the beating of Lutsenko and a more serious assault on Christmas on a journalist, Tetyana Chornovol, have kept tensions high.
Lutsenko said Thursday that the opposition should stop worrying about the 2015 election and political strategies against Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Instead, he said, it should concentrate on organizing a huge turnout Wednesday, which is Unification Day in Ukraine.
Moscow has played hardball in the tug-of-war over Ukraine between Russia and the E.U., while Brussels has seemed constrained by the need to speak for 28 national governments. The E.U. was taken aback by what it saw as Russia’s meddling in its dealings with Ukraine, and a summit scheduled for Jan. 28 in Brussels between Russian President Vladimir Putin and E.U. leaders has been sharply cut back in time and scope.
In Washington on Thursday, after the Ukraine parliament’s vote, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the United States is concerned about the new legislation.
“If Ukraine truly aspires to a European future,” Psaki said, “it must defend and advance universal democratic principles and values that underpin a Europe whole, free, and at peace, and not allow them to be systematically dismantled.”
In the U.S. Senate, Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the Global Human Rights Accountability Act, which would punish human rights violators in all countries. just as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act does with Russia.
“Gross violators of human rights from Zimbabwe to Ukraine, and Honduras to Papua New Guinea, are put on notice that they cannot escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to act,” Cardin said in a statement Thursday.
Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who met twice with Yanukovych in December, said in Senate testimony Wednesday that he assured her he wanted to move forward on an agreement with the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund.
“If that assertion is still true, we call on him to make it credible through concrete actions to restore government accountability, rule of law and engagement with Europe and the IMF,” Nuland said.
Otherwise, she said, sanctions could be considered.
Nuland also prodded the E.U. to be more direct in its communications with Ukraine.
“We have encouraged the E.U. to redouble its efforts to counter false narratives in Russia and actively make its case that a more prosperous, European Ukraine will lift the whole neighborhood, both economically and in terms of democratic stability,” she said.
David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, said, “It is disheartening to watch the democratically elected government of Ukraine moving further away from the democratic aspirations of the people of Ukraine.
“Not only was the law passed in violation of normal procedures, the Rada offered a glimpse of the dark times awaiting Ukraine,” said Kramer, who spoke Thursday in Washington.