Ukraine Targets Protesters With New Rules as Lawmakers Brawl

Ukraine, battling the biggest anti-government demonstrations in almost 10 years, passed a slew of legislation to curb people’s ability to protest.

As scuffles between lawmakers left one with a split lip and another with an injured forehead, bills were approved yesterday to keep closer tabs on mobile-phone use and make erecting tents in public places illegal. Parliament had originally convened to discuss the 2014 budget, which was adopted without debate as opposition parties tried to block the session.

The new laws, which require President Viktor Yanukovych’s signature, risk inflaming street rallies that began two months ago when the government snubbed a European Union cooperation pact in favor of closer ties with Russia. Demonstrators demanding the dismissal of the government and snap elections have vowed to maintain their makeshift tent camp in downtown Independence Square until presidential elections next March.

“The laws are aimed at resolving the political crisis by using police methods and neutralizing the activists,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in the capital, Kiev. “The opposition and demonstrators should firmly demand that the president doesn’t sign them.”

The yield on Ukrainian government bonds due 2023 fell to 8.404 percent as of 10:34 a.m. in Kiev, the lowest level since June 4, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The cost to protect Ukrainian government debt against non-payment for five years using credit-default swaps rose 3 basis points to 694.

Surprise Package

The draft budget was backed by 249 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament, with Deputy Speaker Ihor Kalyetnik chairing the session while the opposition surrounded Speaker Volodymyr Rybak’s office to prevent him from participating.

After the budget was approved, a second vote was held on a package of legislation designed, according to an explanatory note attached to the bill, to address the country’s political crisis and protect citizens’ safety. Deputies voted with a show of hands as opposition blocked parliament’s electronic system. The author of the bill said within seconds of it being announced that 239 lawmakers were in favor.

“Events linked to protests are used by certain domestic and foreign forces to further destabilize the life of our country for their own purposes,” according to the law’s accompanying note. “The state can’t stand by and ignore threats to national security -- the situation needs immediate intervention to maintain order.”

Communications Curbs

The legislation would force anyone buying a mobile-phone SIM card to provide passport identification and halt Internet access to those distributing messages deemed illegal by the authorities. People wearing masks during protests or putting up tents would risk arrest, while anyone blocking state buildings could face as long as five years in prison.

In addition, the drivers of cars traveling in convoys of five or more would face fines and confiscation of their licenses for as long as two years after activists arranged mass outings to the homes of officials including Yanukovych.

Parliament’s actions “cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms,” the U.S. Department of State said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

“If Ukraine truly aspires to a European future, it must defend and advance universal democratic principles and values that underpin a Europe whole, free, and at peace, and not allow them to be systematically dismantled,” it said.

‘Worrying’ Restrictions

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was concerned by the “worrying” restrictions on the rights of assembly and free speech and called on Yanukovych to step in to bring the legislation in line with Ukraine’s international commitments.

“Several pieces of legislation restricting the Ukrainian citizens’ fundamental rights have been hurriedly passed in an apparent disrespect of parliamentary procedures and democratic principles,” she said today in a statement from Brussels.

The opposition yesterday submitted resolutions to annul the laws on the grounds of procedural violations, saying the president doesn’t have the right to sign them, according to a statement on the website of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.

Anti-government rallies in the final weeks of 2013 drew as many as 500,000 people, with a $15 billion bailout from Russia, which opposed Ukraine’s EU plans, enraging many. Even so, turnout has dwindled this year amid seven days of public holidays over New Year and pledges by Yanukovych to raise social spending. A Kiev court this week banned gatherings by two opposition parties until March 8.

Protest Reaction

The legislation risks a reaction both from the demonstrators and the West, according to Timothy Ash, an economist at Standard Bank Group Ltd. in London. Governments in Europe and the U.S. have threatened sanctions against senior Ukrainian officials in the wake of attempts to disperse protest camps by force by sending in riot police.

“Just when the demonstrations looked set to dissipate, parliament passes, under the radar screens, a whole package of legislation that further tightens the grip on the opposition,” Ash wrote in an e-mail. “The opposition will warn that all this just restricts their activity and will make it even more difficult to run a free and fair election in 2015.”

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