Stalemate in Ukraine: Is Brussels is doing enough to help the protesters who want to be part of the EU?
Repressive new laws come into force as anti-government protests in Kiev turn violent yet again
The men and women protesters of Kiev’s Independence Square turn out on the bitterly cold streets of Kiev because they want a future as part of the European Union.
Their anger erupted in November when President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a trade and political deal with the bloc and instead the former Soviet nation forged even closer ties with Russia. But as the months have passed, and new, repressive laws aimed at crushing the demonstrations have been signed, many are calling for tougher retaliatory measures from the institutions in Brussels that they hold so dear.
In the early days, the familiar gold stars and bright blue of the EU logo were seen on flags, beamed on buildings and even painted on faces.
Now they are harder to spot. A more common sight over the last few days has been smoke and fireworks soaring into the night sky; buses burning on broken paving slabs; riot police crouched on the ground, their shields up and ready for the blows.
The new laws hastily passed through Ukraine’s parliament last week came into force today. Ukrainians handing out anti-government leaflets could now face jail. The tents set up in Independence Square could be declared illegal and pulled down. There is a ban on helmets and face-coverings at protests, fines and prison sentences for setting up unauthorised structures or stages, and curbs on the dissemination of “extremist information” and libelling the nation’s leaders.
The laws spurred hundreds of thousands of people to return to Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, on Sunday, and have fuelled the rage that led to the first street violence in two months, during which time the pro-EU movement has grown into a broader push to topple the government.
EU officials have condemned the new laws. The Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, called them the “most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades”. After a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers urged Ukraine to reverse laws they said would “significantly restrict the Ukrainian citizens’ fundamental rights of association”.
Yet at the same time, the foreign ministers again committed themselves to signing the association agreement Mr Yanukovych backed out of in November “as soon as Ukraine is ready”. It has raised questions about the mixed messages the EU is sending to Kiev.
“The association agreement should still be on the table for Ukraine, but not necessarily for the present administration, which has compromised itself by refusing to sign in Vilnius and now by introducing draconian unconstitutional laws and using violence against the Euro-Maidan [protesters],” Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Polish MEP and vice-president of the centre-right European People’s Party, told The Independent. He said the agreement should remain and the EU should “wait for a president who is credible and has good intentions – not only to sign but also to implement – which is not the case of Yanukovych,” he added.
Mr Saryusz-Wolski advocates sanctions such as a travel ban and asset freeze on certain government officials. The United States has also threatened economic sanctions over the new laws.
Any suggestion of concrete measures against Mr Yanukovych is welcome in Independence Square, where protesters remain despite the new laws.
“The EU should take sanctions against Ukrainian leaders and their families,” said Viktoriya, 28, who works in marketing. “Both the EU and US should close their bank accounts and ban entrance... Then they will have only one place to take their luxury holidays – the same as the Belarussian President now – Russia.”
Pro-European Union activists sing the national anthem in central Kiev (AP)
It is, however, the spread of democratic values through engagement which is supposed to guide the EU, and an official said sanctions would only be used as “a last resort”. They certainly would not be applied while the new laws could still be challenged in the courts and while the government was engaging with the opposition. The association agreement remained on the table because “this is a way for Ukraine to become a more modern European state”, the EU official said.
This response will not please everyone in Independence Square. One protester replied to a recent Tweet by Mr Bildt with a simple plea: “It’s getting late. You sat and waited. We asked for help. It’s too late!!!”
Russia, however, sees matters differently and has accused Europe of meddling in Ukraine’s affairs. Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, again blamed European politicians for stoking tensions in Kiev.
“We would prefer that some of our European colleagues refrained from acting unceremoniously over the Ukrainian crisis, when, without any kind of invitation, members of certain European governments rush to the Maidan, take part in anti-government demonstrations in a country with which they have diplomatic relations,” he said at a press conference. “It is just distasteful.”
The tug-of-war over Ukraine has strained relations between Moscow and Brussels, with EU politicians accusing the Kremlin of using a combination of bribes and blackmail to convince President Yanukovych to shun the association agreement. Ukraine has received a £9bn aid package from Russia, and assurances of discounted gas.
Head of UDAR Vitali Klitschko (right) speaks to priests in front of a rank of police after violent clashes in central Kiev (Getty)
Mr Lavrov also cautioned that the situation in Kiev was “spinning out of control”, saying the protesters who have attacked police with fireworks, sticks and stun grenades represent a “complete violation of all European standards of behaviour”.
The leader of the opposition, the former boxer Vitali Klitschko, has condemned attacks on police, which some protesters have blamed on small nationalist groups. But he seems unable to stop the violence, and a stalemate remains. Opposition figures may have brought hundreds of thousands on the streets, but President Yanukovych retains a majority in parliament, the backing of the nation’s influential oligarchs, and the support of many in eastern Ukraine.
Trying to maintain some calm, three priests stood between protesters and police. But this measure can’t last. The EU hopes that planned talks between Mr Klitschko and the President will produce results, but Mr Yanukovych refused to see the Udar (Punch) party leader.
For now, protesters hope just the threat of sanctions will be enough to keep them safe. “Officials would not want to enforce the crackdown for fear of going on the list,” said 26-year-old Artem.
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