EU, US express alarm at Ukraine's anti-protest bills

17th January 2014, Comments 0 comments

The European Union and the United States both expressed strong concern after the Ukrainian parliament approved strict curbs on protests that the opposition branded as a brazen power grab.

Western rights groups also denounced the bills passed on Thursday as an attempt by President Viktor Yanukovych to impose a "dictatorship" and called on him to veto the legislation.

The opposition has staged nearly two months of protests in a central Kiev square in response to Yanukovych's decision to ditch a key pact with the European Union in favour of a strategic partnership with powerful neighbour and past master Russia.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was "deeply concerned by the events in Kiev".

Such steps "do not contribute to building confidence and finding a political solution," she said, asking Yanukovych to "ensure that these decisions are revised and brought in line with Ukraine's international commitments".

Washington also expressed alarm, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki calling on Ukraine to "defend and advance universal democratic principles and values that underpin a Europe whole, free, and at peace".

The German government, seen as one of the most influential voices in the European Union's dealings with ex-Soviet states, said it was watching the events in Kiev with "great concern".

"The course chosen yesterday by President Yanukovych leads to a dead end," added German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

"Repressions should not be the response to heated political discussions," Steinmeier said in a statement.

The new legislation allows the authorities to jail those who blockade public buildings for up to five years. It also permits the arrest of protesters who wear masks or helmets.

The provisions are clearly aimed at the protesters in Kiev, who are occupying the City Hall building and manning a tent city with massive barricades on the central Independence Square and its surrounding streets.

Other provisions passed Thursday introduced the term "foreign agent" to be applied to NGOs that receive even the smallest funding from foreign countries.

The bills, "if signed by President Viktor Yanukovych, will destroy the manifestations of civil disobedience in Ukraine, begin repressions and turn Ukraine into a dictatorship," said the Ukrainian branch of Transparency International.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter Friday that the new bills lead to a situation where "there can be no business as usual with Kiev".

'High security prison'

The opposition accused Yanukovych of ending democracy in the country and called on people to come out for a new gigantic new Independence Square protest on Sunday.

"Yanukovych... took a new step toward installing a real neo-dictatorship in Ukraine," the jailed protest leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said in a statement.

"The bills are a high security prison for everyone who feels like a free person," added Ukraine's former interior minister turned opposition leader Yuriy Lutsenko.

He invited all Ukrainians to mount a strong protest against "the ruling group of bandits", writing on his Facebook page while recovering in a hospital from an attack by truncheon-wielding police this month.

Russia passed a similar package of bills after Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for his third historic term in the Kremlin in 2012, hiking fines for unsanctioned protests, making libel a criminal offence, and slapping NGOs with the ominous "foreign agent" label.

"What Russia did in 60 days after Putin's (inauguration), Ukraine did in 20 minutes," the deputy chief of Human Rights Watch group Rachel Denber wrote on Twitter.

Critics voiced concern over the peculiar method of voting in the parliament after the regular electronic casting of votes was changed to a count of raised hands, leaving no record to verify the figure of 235 in favour out of 450 present which was announced by officials.

The opposition sought to disrupt the vote, and the session disintegrated into chaos as lawmakers wrestled and swung fists, drawing blood.

© 2014 AFP

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