Ukraine democracy seen under threat as Rada passes "dictatorship bill"

By bne IntelliNews January 17, 2014

Ben Aris in Moscow -

With a show of hands that took less than five seconds to count, the deputies of Ukraine's Rada passed into law a package of bills on January 16 that has already been dubbed the "dictatorship bill".

Scuffles broke out on the Rada floor and punches were thrown as the ruling Party of Regions deputies attempted to break the opposition deputies blocking access to the voting buttons. Bedlam ruled as the fire alarm rang throughout much of the session, ignored by the deputies. In the end, the ruling faction voted with a simple show of hands to pass the bill into law. Opposition deputies rushed to the lectern crying: "Stop! What you are doing is a coup!"

The Guardian has a page of pictures from the vote here.

After the meeting, the counting commission frankly admitted to the press that it was unable to count the votes and just "assumed that all the Regions deputies were present and made a majority." Another deputy was caught on film blatently voting for her absent colleague.

The whole vote took only a few minutes; there was no debate or discussion on the law. Indeed, the media were left scrambling after the vote to find out what was actually in the package of legislation.

According to critics, the 38 pages of repressive laws have, at the wave of a hand, ended Ukraine's experiment with democracy, leaving it lurching towards outright dictatorship and the Belarusian model of government. Many in the EU will feel that Brussels should have done more to get Ukraine to sign off on the Association Agreement at the end of November (by coming up with more money, for example) that would have brought the country into the EU fold.

The January 16 vote also widens the growing fissure in the heart of Europe between east and west based on clashing values, and could be a milestone in creating a new Iron Curtain, manifest in the Russian-led Customs Union. The EU deal failed because Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was not interested in the values that underpin Europe's offer. The legislation passed represents a whole scale rejection of those values and underscores the thuggish nature of Yanukovych's conception of political power. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, now for Ukraine to fulfil its stated intention to move closer to Europe.

"Ominous events in the Ukrainian parliament today. Has Ukraine decided to take the road away from Europe and European values?" tweeted Radosław Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister.

This blatant breaking of protocol, and probably several articles of the constitution as well, has brought down a storm of protest, including an official rebuke from the US state department, expressing its "deep concern."

US Senator John McCain, who was in Kyiv in December to talk to the protestors gathered on Independence Square, commonly called the Maidan, said that he was going to seek to expand the Magnitsky Act, which penalises Russian officials suspected of involvement in criminal activities, to cover Ukraine and other human rights abusers in the world. However, both the US and European criticism fell short of calling for sanctions to be imposed on the Ukrainian ruling elite.

"Dark designs against democracy clearly behind what we saw in Kiev today. And ultimately against independence of Ukraine," Carl Bilt, Sweden's foreign minister, added on his Twitter feed.

The new laws

The package of laws effectively criminalises everything that has happened on the streets of Kyiv since Yanukovych failed to sign off on a long-negotiated free trade and association agreement with the EU at the end of November, instead opting to do a deal with Russia to save his government and the economy from collapse.

Tensions in the capital have been high in recent days as protestors were expecting another attack by police on the night of January 15 after the government brought fresh forces to Kyiv. In the end nothing happened, but the authorities now have the legal ammunition they need to justify a forced clearance of the square.

"Black Thursday in #Ukraine. Adoption of repressing laws shows govt has no intentions to resolve political crisis in a peaceful dwway," tweeted Myroslava Petsa, a well-known journalist and commentator on Ukraine.

While commentators are still chewing through the list of new laws, the main ones include (with a nod to Maxim Tucker, who produced the first list):

• Looser rules over what counts as libel. "Criminal defamation + dependent judiciary = censorship," tweeted Tucker. "Even if a story is true many journalists won't risk conviction 4 criticism of government." The penalty for ignoring the law is up to two years in jail.

• With a nod to Russian President Vladimir Putin's laws on NGOs, Ukraine's government now has new powers to refuse registration to NGOs receiving foreign funding. This means they can outlaw critical NGOs, shut them down.

• The law defines "interference with or obstruction of the activities of public authorities' as extremism". "Ergo, #euromaidan is extremist," says Tucker.

• Publishing certain information about the police will be a crime. In recent days protestors have taken to photographing the faces of the members of the elite Berkut riot police and listing their names on websites. "Naming and shaming #euromaidan human rights abusers will lead to prosecution," says Tucker. The penalty for ignoring the law is up to three years in jail.

• Publishing "extremist" information is now punishable by up to three years in jail.

• Wearing a helmet to a protest will be a crime. "If the police come to clear #euromaidan, protesters better bare their heads for the batons," says Tucker. Protestors immediately responded by turning up at Maidan wearing colanders on their heads. The penalty for ignoring the law is 10 days in jail.

• An amnesty law means police that beat up Euromaidan protesters and the officials that ordered them to do so will not face prosecution.

• The new laws make it easier for MPs to be stripped of their immunity and prosecuted. "Because #euromaidan MPs are now extremists," says Tucker.

• TV and internet providers in Ukraine will have to apply for a new license within the next three months. Protestors are expecting many of their websites to be shut down.

• A private convoy of more than five vehicles to be banned. Since the start of the year the Automaidan protest has gather dozen of cars that drive out to the president's residence just outside the capital and block the road. Breaking the law can lead to the confiscation of your car and a two-year driving ban.

• And also aimed at the Automaidan protests is a brand new law that forbids "blocking access to someone's residence," which is punishable with up to six years in jail.

• Demonstration props, stages, sound, etc. will require permission from now on rather than notification. The opposition stage in central Kyiv has been a high-profile platform to voice the people's discontent, but now it will probably have to be removed. "To criticise government loudly you must first ask," says Tucker.

• The government has labelled online protests as "extremism" and will force SIM card folders using social media on their smart phones to identify themselves to the authorities.

And there is more. A more complete list from the Euromaidan SOS facebook page can be found here. The Rada website lists the bills here.

Violent clashes are now very likely, as also included in the package was an outright ban on protests. The ban was already decided on January 6, but only issued January 16. It runs from January 8 to March 8 and defines a mass protest as "an event using loudspeakers.... posters, putting up of tents, stages or curtains."

"We believe that it is a fact of preparation for... repressions against peaceful activists across the country," said a statement from the opposition party UDAR led by former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.

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