The new wave of civic protest in Kyiv, including violent clashes with the riot police, marks the second month of massive popular opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. The new laws passed in the parliament last week represent the latest challenge to democracy, which the EU could prevent by putting more pressure on Yanukovych and oligarchic backers of his political regime.
Most Ukrainians are outraged at the latest effort by Yanukovych to tighten his grip over freedom of assembly, media and civil society. The laws aim to curb the enduring demonstrations in which his opponents have demanded the government’s resignation, investigation of the use of violence against peaceful protesters, and early presidential and parliamentary elections. Yanukovych's opponents also insist on returning Ukraine to the democratic and European path of development.
None of their demands have been met. Nor is there any sign of this on the horizon. On the contrary, members of parliament from the ruling Party of Regions and the Communist Party have passed the new laws in violation of all procedures. If implemented, these will discourage citizens from protesting and severely undermine the ability of independent NGOs to run civic oversight, mobilization or investigative activities. The laws also criminalize defamation, increase financial penalties for occupying public buildings, penalize setting-up tents and stages for protests without police permits, and introduce up to 10 days in jail for protesting in masks or hard hats.
They also make it easier to strip members of parliament of their immunity and introduce penalties for the distribution of 'extremist' materials or 'collecting' information about judges and police officers. The infamous label of 'foreign agent' will now apply to NGOs that conduct political activities and receive funding from abroad. They will have to register with the authorities and will be deprived of their non-profit status for tax purposes. These laws mirror attempts by President Vladimir Putin to curb protests and restrain civil society in Russia.
The adoption of the laws was preceded by a press conference by Justice Minister Olena Lukash who stated that the protests were not 'peaceful' anymore and police had the right to use force against protesters. A court decision has also now forbidden all street protests in central Kyiv until 8 March. The authorities have thus created a legal basis for clearing-up the protests, including by using force, and the repression of opposition activists.
What all this really means is that the regime refuses to recognize the legitimacy of popular protests. Yanukovych views them as an attempted coup by the opposition leaders and a revolution scenario instigated by foreign forces. So far there is no real dialogue or roundtable with the opposition and civil society leaders that has been demanded by Ukrainians and urged by the West. Despite formally agreeing to negotiate with the opposition, the president has refused to participate personally and instead appointed Head of the National Security Council Andriy Kluyev to lead the process.
As a result of these latest developments, it looks as though it will be increasingly difficult to hold free and fair elections in Ukraine in 2015. In the short-term, the West should put pressure on the regime's backers – the oligarchs and crony politicians that have their businesses registered and use banks in the EU. These people control members of parliament and could form a new majority with the opposition to find solution to the political crisis. Starting investigations and financial scrutiny of the European bank accounts of politically exposed persons from Ukraine could create cracks in the ruling party's unity and be the tipping point for change. There is already an EU directive that provides the legislative basis to do this. In addition, visa bans and restricted access to financial system should be imposed on individuals violating human rights.
Last week, the United States introduced a draft Global Human Rights Accountability Act that will expand the Magnitsky Act to other countries, including Ukraine. The EU should follow this example. It should not be afraid to act even bearing in mind the futility of sanctions it has imposed on Belarus. Ukraine is not Belarus. It has a strong protest movement and vibrant civil society, a growing middle class and a genuine parliamentary opposition. Yanukovych's popularity is low, and the Ukrainian diaspora keeps international attention focused on the country. The diversity of Ukraine's business interest groups and regional elites, and its unviable current economic model, point to an irreversible democratic and European path.
The EU should aid the Ukrainian people in this process, rather than just observe it. It should demonstrate its support for their European aspirations in a meaningful way. This could include further simplifying visa procedures, increasing access to EU programmes and exchanges, stepping up financial support for the non-profit sector through the European Endowment for Democracy and establishing new scholarships to study in European universities. But, most importantly, the EU should put more pressure on the Ukrainian authorities and conduct financial scrutiny of the activities of government officials and their families in Europe.
The alternative is rather gloomy and means more confrontation and repression, because popular protest will not exhaust itself and die out. In recent weeks, Ukraine woke up as the nation with a force that is surprising and unexpected. Europe could either assist in this effort or miss the chance to expand freedom and democracy on the continent, damaging its credibility in the region.
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