A friend of mine has drawn my attention to what is happening in the Ukraine at the moment. In recent weeks, there has been new laws enacted which imposed draconian measures on protests against the government.
As the BBC reported on 17 January 2014:
"Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has signed into law a bill aimed at curbing anti-government protests. The bill was passed in parliament on Thursday with a quick show of hands by MPs loyal to the president, rather than the usual system of electronic voting. The changes include a ban on unauthorised tents in public areas and criminal responsibility for slandering government officials." (1)
It all began when mass demonstrations began over President Yanukovych's last-minute rejection of the EU partnership deal, in favour of a deal with Russia. Instead of a trade deal with the EU, Mr Yanukovych opted for a $15bn (£9bn) bailout from Russia. There was clear pressure from Russia to bind the country with closer ties in an economic union, with the threat of a political union bringing back Ukraine to the kind of satellite status it had within the old Soviet Union.
But the demands later widened to include broader issues such as claims of widespread government corruption and abuse of power.
"One of the laws bans any unauthorised installation of tents, stages or amplifiers in public places. Those who violate the law now face a hefty fine or detention. Another bill provides a punishment of one year of corrective labour for slandering government officials. Protests involving more than five vehicles in "Automaidan" motorcades were also banned. This followed such demonstrations outside government offices - including Mr Yanukovych's countryside residence - in recent days." (1)
The legislation was specifically targeting a particular kind of protest, and also, for good measure, was effectively restricting freedom of speech. As the Washington Post noted:
"Slander would become a criminal offence, according to the bill, and critics said it is so broadly worded that virtually any act of journalism that criticizes the government or a government official could be defined as slander."
On 16th January the law was passed restricting the right to protest, but the protests continued to escalate, and on 22nd January, two protesters die from bullet wounds during clashes with police in Kiev, and by this time, protests were spreading across many cities
But today, the hardline appears to be in tatters.
"The Ukrainian parliament has voted overwhelmingly to annul controversial anti-protest legislation. The decision comes less than two weeks after the measures were introduced. The law, which banned the wearing of helmets by protesters and the blockading of public buildings, had helped fuel continuing anti-government demonstrations. In another move to appease the protesters, Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has offered to quit." (3)
It is an extraordinary volte-face by the parliament, as an emergency session voted by 361 to 2 to repeal the protest laws. And Prime Minister Azarov has now said: "To create additional opportunities for social and political compromise and for a peaceful solution to the conflict, I made a personal decision to ask the president of Ukraine to accept my resignation as prime minister of Ukraine."
"Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government Tuesday, amid a political crisis fired by violent protests on the country's streets." (8)
Earlier today, an anonymous senior Russian official hinted strongly that Russia might reconsider its $15 billion bailout offer to Ukraine if the current government is removed. Perhaps realising that kind of threat would be counter productive, President Putin has declared the deal will go ahead regardless:
"Moscow is ready to support not the government of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people, President Putin said, referring to Russia's loan to its neighbouring state and its offer to reduce gas prices. No matter which government comes to power in Ukraine, Russia will not reconsider its earlier signed agreements, he told a news conference in Brussels. "Regarding you question whether we will review our agreements on loans and the energy sector if the opposition will take power ... No, we will not," Putin told a news conference after talks with European Union leaders in Brussels. (4)
Meanwhile, within the EU summit, accusations and counter-accusations may be been hurled about in a "blame game":
"EU leaders will tell Vladimir Putin when they meet for a summit in Brussels tomorrow (28 January) that the present Ukrainian crisis was prompted by Russian pressure on Kyiv. The Russian president is expected to counter by saying that the EU made the first move by offering Ukraine a free trade agreement and for meddling in its internal affairs." (5)
Russia evidently feared an EU-Ukraine trade deal would damage its economy, and that it is being sidelined by the EU. It has the potential to restrict fuel supplies to Europe, and sees the increased expansion of the EU as a threat, not perhaps without cause. The EU has been expanding into the former Soviet territories and brings with it an internal protectionism, while a recent study suggests that Russia has intensified its own protectionist policies.
Ukraine is caught up in the middle, a pawn between the two power blocks, and the recent political turmoil in that country reflects the attempt to stifle internal debate on the matter. The ending of the anti-protest laws should not, however, lull the outside viewer into a false sense of security. While the repeal has eased tensions for the moment, the economic and political battleground fought over Ukraine may well reignite protests.
Journalist and war correspondent Eric S. Margolis, writing earlier this month sums up the issues, and the dangers of conflict:
"Strife-torn Ukraine is another powder keg. Its western half wants to join Europe; the Russian-speaking eastern half wants to reunite with Russia. The West is busy stirring the pot in Kiev. Moscow is furious and sees nefarious western plots to begin tearing apart the Russian Federation, which is beset by rebellion in the Caucasus. All this threatens a clash between Russia and NATO. Diplomacy, not subversion, is urgently needed." (6)
Back in 1992, Trudy Rubin noted:
"Between Russia and Ukraine lies deep mistrust born of centuries of Russian dominance. Russians still have difficulty accepting Ukrainian independence and Ukrainians fear Russia will return to its imperialist ways." (7)
Freedom is precious, and it is too precious to be lost in the Ukraine because of a power struggle between the EU and Russia. Whatever economic solution is found, it must be divorced as far as possible from the political control which gave rise to the protests. It is clear that many people in Ukraine do not want to be dominated by Russian hegemony again, but they should also be aware that the EU is not wholly altruistic in its overtures either.
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