Pitched battles continue to rage in central Kiev after clashes erupted today between police and protestors. Gutted police vehicles burn and dozens have been injured after a huge protest against new government abuses and overreach turned violent.
The spark for this new wave of popular anger against the government was the Ukrainian parliament’s unceremonious adoption of a set of laws whose goal is to smother the anti-government protests that first emerged in November. Their effect may be the complete disintegration of the last 23 years worth of hard-fought democratic progress. As the Kyiv Post’s Katya Gorshchinskaya put it, “Welcome to the new police state. We call it Little Russia.”
And it is growing Russian influence—and the Ukrainian government’s attendant turn away from Western values—that triggered the start of protests in late November. When President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign a long-planned Association Agreement with the European Union and opted instead for Russian money and suzerainty, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to streets around the country and pleaded for him to reconsider. Instead of engaging in a dialogue with the protesters, Mr. Yanukovych has entrenched himself and chosen Putin’s methods for dispersing pesky disturbances.
The list of new crimes enumerated in the documents that some Ukrainians are calling “The Law on Dictatorship” is long and targets all segments of Ukraine’s protesting population. For example, participants in the collective driving protest movement “AutoMaidan” now face a two-year suspension of their licenses and confiscation of their vehicles for driving a car that “moves in a column of more than five.”
The new laws also take a page from recent Putin initiatives and target civil society organizations. Now NGOs that receive foreign funding must register as “foreign agents” within three months or be dissolved. They will also have to pay an 18% income tax and submit to a strict reporting regime. Those that are branded as “extremist” will be closed.
Defamation has been re-criminalized and “extremist activity”—which is poorly and broadly defined—can be punished by large fines and up to three years in prison. Online media outlets that have flourished throughout the protests will now have to contend with requirements to register themselves as “information agencies” and a very real possibility that the state will order internet providers to block their websites.
Those who have stood on Kiev’s central Independence Square for the last two months are threatened with 15 days in prison for wearing masks or helmets that are similar to those worn by law enforcement. Bullhorns are also banned. Additional prison sentences have been established for erecting tents or stages without permission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
By their nature, protests are an attention-seeking instrument and the Ukrainian protests have been the focus of much media interest. But Mr. Yanukovych is counting on the silent portion of the country to support him in quelling dissent, quieting the bothersome protests and returning Ukraine to some semblance of stability (95 percent of Ukrainians have called the country’s political situation “unstable” or “explosive”). His gamble is well-founded. Polling from late December shows that while 43% of Ukrainians do want to join the European Union now (13 points higher than any other option), fully 50% of Ukrainians do not support the Kiev protests. That latter statistic marks a turnaround in Ukraine’s tolerance for the protest—only weeks prior a majority had supported them. More significantly, only 31% of Ukrainians believe that the outcome of the protests will be positive for Ukraine.
Today’s violent protests may only strengthen ordinary Ukrainians’ desire to see an end to the bedlam. Many are only too happy to trade freedoms that they rarely use for peace and quiet. Cognizant that, in a nation where stability sells, events like today’s do not acquit the opposition forces well, the movement’s leaders have called on protestors to refrain from violence. They warn that many of the angry young men in the street are provocateurs paid by Yanukovych’s party to create chaos and turn the tide of public opinion fully against the protest movement.
But Mr. Yanukovych must also be careful in determining his next steps. Were he to aggressively enforce the new legislations or authorize brutality towards the protestors, he is courting the danger of swinging public opinion against him and seeing larger, angrier and more energized crowds emerge. As was demonstrated twice over the past weeks, the use of violence towards the protestors in Kiev has had a maximizing effect on the size and scope of the protesting crowds. Further violence or police crackdowns on protest activities will only exacerbate the situation.
Internal politics also complicate Yanukovych’s options. A large percentage of Ukrainians hold Mr. Yanukovych personally responsible for solving the current political crisis, but his choosing one side over the other will polarize this already divided country more than it has been before. Yanukovych’s political base is in eastern Ukraine, where the majority speak Russian and identify strongly with Russia. Only 17 percent of eastern Ukrainians approve of the protest movement and would be only too happy to see their president quash it in whatever manner he deems necessary. Meanwhile, 80 percent of citizens in the western and more European-leaning part of the country approve of the protest movement and disapprove of the president’s recent decisions. They did not vote for him and will not support him.
Viktor Yanukovych is thus stuck between a rock and a hard place. He needs Russian money and low gas prices—and the political influence that comes along with it—to keep Ukraine’s struggling economy afloat and his supporters in eastern Ukraine satisfied. But the visceral anger shown by many other of Ukraine’s citizens at his original decision to reject the European Union, last week’s move against basic civil liberties, and ever-rising levels of corruption may create an irreparable rift in the fabric of an already divided country.