Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Friday signed into law hastily approved measures to ban unauthorized protests, a move aimed at wiping out the remnants of a civic uprising against his rejection of closer ties with the European Union in favor of alignment with Russia.
The bills endorsed by what opponents contend was an inconclusive show of hands by lawmakers at the Verkhovna Rada assembly on Thursday were swiftly criticized as a violation of Ukrainians' human rights by free-speech advocates and senior Western diplomats.
The measures prohibit the erection of tents, stages, sound equipment or other objects that can hinder movement on public streets and venues. Anyone providing such facilities is also liable to fines or jailing under the new laws, and "mass violation" of public order can lead to 15 years in prison.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians angered by Yanukovich's surprise decision in early November to abandon an EU association plan packed Kiev's Independence Square to protest the leadership's political about-face. The Kiev government had been negotiating with the EU on closer trade and political ties, which angered the Russian government and led to boycotts and punitive tariffs on important Ukrainian exports to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pushing his own version of a regional economic bloc, the Eurasian Union, and has exerted economic pressure on former Soviet republics to stay within Moscow's orbit. And Ukraine, which is heavily indebted and dependent on favorable energy prices from Moscow, was vulnerable to implied threats of steep increases in natural gas prices this winter or diminished supplies if Kiev aligned itself with the Brussels-based EU.
Yanukovich's chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin, resigned in protest of the new laws, and other moderates in the leadership were also expected to abandon the president and his Party of Regions, the Kiev Post reported.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called the legislative action rushed through without debate disturbing.
"The steps that were taken yesterday are anti-democratic, they're wrong, they are taking from the people of Ukraine their choice and their opportunity for the future," Kerry said in Washington.
"I am deeply concerned by the events in Kiev," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement. She called the new laws moves aimed at "restricting the Ukrainian citizens' fundamental rights."
Amnesty International issued a statement calling the legislation "a charter for oppression," and the rights group's Ukraine expert warned that it rolled back democratic advances in the country to the Soviet era.
"In passing this law the government is halting any progress Ukraine has made over the past twenty years towards full compliance with its international human rights obligations," said Amnesty's Heather McGill. "It promises a grim future for the entire nation."
In a commentary on the new laws, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said the legislation "rolled back an entire decade of reforms that once made Ukraine the leader of the post-Soviet neighborhood's democratic hopes."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara brushed off the criticism. After meeting with the EU and U.S. ambassadors to Kiev, Kozhara's office issued a statement saying that the foreign admonishments were "considered in Kiev as meddling in the internal affairs of our state."