Gutting Democracy in Ukraine
The Yanukovych-controlled parliament passes laws to crush the civil-reform movement.

Ukrainian students in Independence Square


George Weigel

Less than 72 hours after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych seemed to back off from his Ministry of Culture’s threat to decertify the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and put this largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches in legal limbo, the Yanukovych-controlled Ukrainian parliament, on January 16, rammed through eleven new laws aimed at curbing, and eventually crushing, the EuroMaidan civic-renewal movement, muzzling its calls for political and economic reform by constraining the movement’s exercise of basic civil liberties.

Within hours of the parliamentary farce in the Ukrainian Rada on January 16, both the European Union’s ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, and the U.S. ambassador to Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, publicly raised sharp questions about the procedural deficiencies by which these laws were summarily adopted. But while there is no question that parliamentary procedure was, to put it gently, stretched beyond the breaking point in order to pass the new laws, what ought to be of deepest concern to supporters of Ukraine’s courageous efforts at civic self-renewal is the legislation’s substance. For were these laws to be signed by President Yanukoych and then implemented, the net effort would be to hollow out Ukrainian democracy by shredding the fabric of the new, vital, but still nascent Ukrainian civil society that has been aborning throughout the country in the various EuroMaidan protests.

In classic Stalinist fashion, with modifications adopted from Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reduce Russian civil-society associations to vassals of the Russian state, the new laws combine the sinister with the seemingly silly. As of January 16, five-car “columns” of cars are forbidden without explicit police permission. (Why? Because convoys have been organized to spread the EuroMaidan movement throughout Ukraine from its Kievan epicenter). As of January 16, parliamentary immunity may be revoked in the cases of what are deemed to be obstreperous opposition politicians, who would be subject to legal penalties for their dissent from the Yanukoych line. “Violations of peaceful assembly” (which would presumably include classic nonviolent resistance against the thugs of the security services) is now punishable by ten days under arrest. “Failure to comply with the legitimate demands” of the security services now gets you a major monetary fine. An entirely new legal ban on “blocking access to housing” will get you six years in prison.

“Slander” has been brought back into the Ukrainian criminal code, punishable by up to two years in prison. An anti-“rioting” law, clearly aimed at the EuroMaidans (which have been remarkably peaceful, despite violent provocations) carries a prison sentence of ten to 15 years. Three years in prison await those “gathering information” about the security services and regime-compliant judges. Churches are forbidden “extremist activities,” the nature of which is, of course, left to the discretion of the authoritarians. Internet and mobile-phone providers are now required to obtain equipment that records the activities of their clients and to make the information available to the police. And members of the Berkut, the “Golden Eagle” security services, are exempt from prosecution for assaults against EuroMaidan activists, some of which have involved bludgeoning activists into unconsciousness. Yet wearing a helmet during a protest is now illegal.

Following recent Russian precedents, one of the new laws “against extremism” also attempts to cut civil-society activists and their organizations off from their Western allies:

A civic association functioning as a foreign agent is [any] civic association that receives monetary funds or in-kind donations for its activities from foreign states, their state institutions [organs], non-governmental organizations of other states, international nongovernmental organizations, foreign citizens, persons without citizenship or their representatives who receive monetary funds or other in-kind materials from the mentioned sources, or who participate in political activity on the territory of Ukraine, also in the interest of foreign states.