Ukraine: The New Dictatorship

Ukraine Anti Protest Law.jpg

Danil Prikhodko/Demotix/Corbis

Ukrainians protesting anti-democracy laws with the word “dictatorship” taped across their mouths, Kiev, January 17, 2014

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 this week contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation. Although they concern the most basic 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. The standard electronic voting system, which creates an official record, was not used.

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, Julia Tymoshenko, is in prison. Her defense lawyer has already been stripped of his parliamentary mandate.

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 criminalize unfriendly references to the president.

This, unfortunately, is only the beginning. Public protests are what citizens have when no other form of communication works. 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. It will now be illegal to violate government procedures for public gatherings. Since there are in fact no such procedures, any public gathering can be deemed against the law. It is now illegal to carry out “extremist activities,” which includes expressing “extremist” views in print, on the Internet, and in phone conversations. Internet providers and phone companies are now required to maintain records that will allow prosecutors to pursue such cases.

Perhaps the most disheartening new measure copies existing legislation in Russia concerning “foreign agents.” Organizations that receive any form of direct or indirect financial support from any source beyond Ukraine must stigmatize themselves by adding the term “foreign agent” to their names. They will also be required to publish regular public accounts of their activities and be subject to special taxes.

Naturally, it is impossible to do normal business, political or not, under such conditions. If such laws existed in the United States, my employer would be a “foreign agent,” since Yale University receives money from sources beyond the United States. So do the best universities in Ukraine, the Kiev Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Catholic University, whose existence is now under threat. So of course does the Catholic Church itself, whose future in Ukraine is now uncertain. The problem is general: the impressive revival of Jewish education and culture in today’s Ukraine is of course also funded from abroad.

In practice, will Ukraine become a dictatorship? Ukrainians have powerful reasons to resist. These laws, now signed by the president, end the Ukrainian republic as they have known it. They also much reduce the possibility of future European integration, something which is yearned for throughout the country, and for that matter among elites and the political class. No one in Brussels or European capitals is going to lobby for a trade deal with a leadership that has explicitly chosen authoritarianism. If these laws are allowed to stand, the future of Ukraine will thus be with Belarus and Russia, for lack of another option. This makes no economic sense, since Europe’s market is bigger and more important. The only kind of sense it makes is political, for a president who knows he is too weak in his own society to win another democratic election.


In the past decade, Ukrainians have been among the most impressive defenders of their own rights. In the past weeks, Ukrainians have been defending the idea of Europe, inspiring Europeans themselves. Will anyone defend civil society in Ukraine?

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