Ukraine: The New Dictatorship

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Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
Viktor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin at a Russian-Ukrainian summit, Moscow, December 17, 2013

On paper, Ukraine is now a dictatorship. President Viktor Yanukovych, in having the deputies of his Party of Regions endorse an extraordinary packet of legislation, has arrogated decisive political power to himself. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians spent weeks in the cold demonstrating for basic human rights and a stronger association with Europe, the president has responded with a violation of human rights and a rather sad imitation of Russia.

In procedure and in content the laws “passed” by the Ukrainian parliament in mid-January contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation. Although they concern the most fundamental aspects of political life and transform the constitutional structure of the Ukrainian state, these measures were not subjected to even the barest of parliamentary procedures. There were no public hearings, there was no debate in parliament, and there was no actual vote. There was a show of hands in parliament and an estimate of how many hands were raised. Photographic evidence indicates that rather few deputies actually raised their hands. The standard electronic voting system, which creates an official record, was not used at all.

The deputies—those who apparently raised their hands—have all but voted themselves out of existence. If the deputies from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions read the legislation, which according to Ukrainian reports they did not, they would realize that their own positions are now under threat. Their parliamentary immunity is now no longer guaranteed, which means that if they vote the wrong way they can be stripped of immunity and prosecuted. Yanukovych’s main political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, is in prison. Her defense lawyer has already been stripped of the legal status conferred on him by parliament. The logic of the legislation is the end of parliamentary checks on presidential power.

Speaking at all about the Tymoshenko case will now be risky. Actions deemed to “interfere with the work of courts” have been banned. Making remarks of an “offensive” nature about judges is illegal. It seems unlikely that truth will be a defense. It is true, for example, that the new president of the highest Ukrainian court was once in charge of the court that misplaced documents about President Yanukovych’s earlier criminal convictions for rape and robbery. But that seems like exactly the thing that people will no longer be allowed to say. As far as Yanukovych’s own record is concerned, the new legislation’s vaguely worded ban on “slander” will presumably be used to make unfriendly references to the president a crime.

This, unfortunately, is only the beginning. Through remarkably large and peaceful public protests against the government beginning late last November, Ukrainians have set a positive example for Europeans these past few weeks. But it will now be illegal to violate government procedures for public gatherings. Since there are in fact no such procedures, any public gathering can …

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