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Ukraine's New Anti-Protest Laws Are Sparking Riots

Just when it seemed that Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests were entering a quieter phase, noise and violence returned to the streets of Kiev during an antigovernment rally yesterday.

by Annabelle Chapman
Jan 20 2014, 5:15pm

Photos by Konstantin Chernichkin

Just when it seemed that Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests were entering a quieter phase, noise and violence returned to the streets of Kiev during an antigovernment rally yesterday. Anger at a new law that effectively seeks to criminalize antigovernment demonstrations erupted into clashes with riot police. The fighting between the two sides was the most intense the Ukrainian capital has seen since the protests began.

As the Euromaidan campaign continued through New Year and over Orthodox Christmas (January 7), turnout understandably dropped. The initial outpouring of dissent at president Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign a major trade deal with the EU back in November had started to wane. It was unclear for how long the protesters could continue, or what strategy the opposition had other than repeating calls for Yanukovych to resign. But the new law—and farcical TV footage of Ukrainian politicians exchanging blows in parliament—provided the president's opponents with new fire for the fight.

Recent weeks have been punctuated with attacks on antigovernment activists in Kiev and other cities. Among them was Tetyana Chornovol, an investigative journalist, known for her reports on the shady business deals of Ukraine’s top officials. In the early hours of December 25, she was driving home alone after publishing a blog post titled, "A Hangman Lives Here," with pictures of an out-of-town residence, which she claimed belongs to Ukraine’s interior minister. In a terrifying ordeal that was caught on dashcam video, she was chased down by another car, and then brutally beaten and left for dead.

Chornovol has since accused Yanukovych of ordering the beating. Speaking yesterday at her first press conference since the incident, she held up a picture of a vast new mansion that is being built, which she says probably belongs to Yanukovych.

As the protests have continued on Independence Square, another form of demonstration has emerged. Known as “avtomaidan” (hashtag #автомайдан), it involves many cars driving together to Mezhyhyria, Yanukovych’s personal residence outside Kiev, or to block government buildings.

The relatively quiet spell was broken last Thursday, when the Ukrainian parliament passed a series of new laws that seriously limit the scope for protests. The laws were rushed through by President Yanukovych’s supporters, with a show of hands and no time for discussion. Not for the first time, a brawl broke out in parliament. But the voting procedure was clearly fine with Yanukovych, and the next day he signed the laws.

The laws, summarized in English on this infographic, clearly limit Ukrainians’ freedom of assembly. They introduce penalties for wearing helmets at demos, setting up tents and public stages and distributing “extremist” materials, among other activities. People driving cars in columns of more than five could have their licenses and vehicles confiscated (presumably a response to the increasingly popular “automaidan” initiatives). Foreign observers are particularly dismayed at the law—which could have been copy and pasted from Vladimir Putin’s Russia—that labels NGOs receiving money from abroad “foreign agents.”

“On paper, Ukraine is now a dictatorship,” commented Timothy Snyder, a well-known American historian of Eastern Europe in the New York Review of Books. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, has called Ukraine’s new laws the most repressive to go through a European parliament in decades. They “promise a grim future for the entire nation,” added Amnesty International.

The laws came as a shock to protesters and were condemned by the opposition. "They do not have any legal basis,” said Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxing champion who now leads UDAR (literally: punch), one of the three main opposition parties. It seemed that the authorities would finally be clearing the Maidan, a maze of tents and barricades that have been built up around a central stage in the city's Independence Square. For many commentators, the new laws were a sign that Yanukovych is preparing for the next presidential election, scheduled for 2015, which he is desperate to win—at any cost, it now seems.

Angry at the new laws, a crowd of about 100,000 gathered at the Maidan on Sunday. Some protesters had chosen to respond to the law banning helmets by posing for photos wearing metal colanders and other cookware on their heads instead. Another law, referring to masked extremists, prompted people to come to the Maidan wearing colorful animal masks.

What began as another Sunday of peaceful protests was soon consumed by violence, as radicals clashed with cops near the Dynamo football stadium, about 300 yards from Independence Square. Some of them attacked a police bus, setting it alight with Molotov cocktails. The police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Channel 5, a Ukrainian TV channel, reported that riot police stripped two protesters, beat them, and fired water at them from a cannon in the freezing cold. One video (above) from yesterday’s events shows riot police charging protesters, then immediately retreating, leaving two to be beaten with sticks and poles, to the sound of the Ukrainian national anthem. Another video, published by Radio Svoboda, shows police taking aim at one of its reporters.

The fighting continued into the night, leaving dozens of citizens wounded. There were many injuries among the police, too: about 100 officers sought medical aid and over 60 were hospitalized, according to an Interior Ministry report the following morning. In addition, over 20 people were detained.

Speaking on Sunday night on hromadske.tv, a civic news channel, Klitschko repeated his call for an early presidential election. In response to one question about the day’s events, he replied: “What was I supposed to do? Use my sportsman’s abilities?” More than once during his TV appearance, the possibility of a “civil war” was mentioned.

A White House statement called the rising tension in Ukraine a “direct consequence” of the Ukrainian government refusing to listen to the people’s demands. “From its first days, the Maidan movement has been defined by a spirit of non-violence and we support today's call by opposition political leaders to re-establish that principle,” it wrote, adding that the US is considering further measures in response to the violence, including sanctions.

On Monday morning, there were many people milling around Hrushevskoho street, where the worst clashes had taken place. Part of the ground was wrecked where heavy paving slabs had been pulled up to use as missiles against riot police. A police bus that had been consumed by flames the previous night was now eerily adorned with icicles.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government showed that it was well on top of the weekend’s news, starting the day with the following tweet: “PM Mykola Azarov: There is a perspective for developing [Ukraine’s] sugar industry.”

Follow Annabelle on Twitter: @AB_Chapman

Vitali Klitschko