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

Ukrainian students in Independence Square


George Weigel

The language may be a bit baroque, but the intent is clear enough: Any Ukrainian civil-society organization that accepts funds for civil-society or pro-democracy work from, say, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (full disclosure: I serve on the NED board), the European Endowment for Democracy, the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for International Private Enterprise, or the American political parties’ international institutes will be considered a “foreign agent.” It must identify itself as “as a civil association performing the functions of a foreign agent.” It must submit monthly financial and program reports to the state, and it must now pay income taxes.

As for “political activity on the territory of Ukraine,” well, one can only imagine what a regime capable of passing such a law would consider as falling under that rubric. Take, for example, the Chicago-based Ukrainian Catholic Educational Foundation, a U.S.-based charity established to support the work of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, whose students and faculty have been deeply involved in both education for long-term civic renewal and the recent EuroMaidan protests. Should these new laws be signed and enforced, the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the former Soviet space, and one of the most admired institutions in Ukraine, could be considered a “foreign agent” because it held a public seminar on the moral-cultural foundations of democracy (an obviously “political activity” according to the lights of those who wrote these new laws) with funds provided by a foundation in Chicago.

Throughout the weeks of the EuroMaidan protsts, Ukrainian president Yanukovych has not indicated any willingness to compromise with reformers. Annoyed by the persistence of the people of the EuroMaidans, he seems now to have adopted the anti–civil society tactics pioneered by Vladimir Putin, the neo-czar who is providing something of a financial lifeline to the economically strapped Ukrainian government, thereby advancing his project of reconstituting the old Soviet space de facto if not de iure. Yanukovych, for his part, is interested in one thing: power, and maintaining it beyond the March 2015 Ukrainian presidential elections. Fearful that if he loses next year he will end up in prison (if he stays in the country), he and his parliamentary satraps evidently used the long Ukrainian Christmas season, which with its New Calendar and Old Calendar celebrations runs well into January, to prepare the legislative package that was muscled through the Rada on January 16.

One might, conceivably, argue that this is all an elaborate feint: that Yanukoych is trying to dismantle the EuroMaidan movement through the threats posed by the new laws, which he will either delay in signing or, after signing, not enforce. But that would be to take too sanguine a view. Like Putin, Yanukovych knows that there is a serious downside to massive public brutality in handling the dissidents of nascent civil society: In a world of iPhones and social media, such brutalities are now made transparent, often in real time, throughout the world. A few skulls cracked may get some off the EuroMaidans. But the long-term strategy of the New Authoritarians, in Ukraine as in Russia, is to strangle nascent civil societies in their cradles, using draconian regulations supported by prosecutorial power, all of it masquerading as the rule of law and the defense of national sovereignty against “foreign agents.”

In these circumstances, protesting violations of parliamentary procedure, while welcome, is insufficient. Unless serious political counter-pressure is applied from Washington and (if such may be imagined) from Brussels, the civic-reform movement in Ukraine will, over time, be cut off from its supporters around the world and Ukrainian democracy will be hollowed out, leaving behind a dry and rotting shell of democratic formality in a country ruled by political thugs and their oligarchic allies.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.