Defending Ukraine's Tough New Protest Law

A necessary evil. 

The White House statement on Ukraine, issued by NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden on January 19th, seriously misreads the situation. The most recent violence is not merely a consequence of the government's failure to "acknowledge the legitimate grievances of the people." It is an integral part of the strategy of extremist nationalist groups, which receive both moral and intellectual support from the opposition parties Svoboda and Batkivshchyna.

Along with Udar, the party headed by former boxer and Western media darling Vitali Klitschko, these parties routinely disassociate themselves from any violence. At the same time, however, they adamantly oppose attempts to dismantle the EuroMaidan, which began as a popular movement last November, but has since transformed Kiev's commercial center into a permanent homeless shelter, and become the radical opposition's staging ground. They even insisted on (and got!) a blanket parliamentary amnesty for anyone who had engaged in acts of violence against civil authorities last December.

Acting in concert, these three parties have shut down the country's political life by physically blocking access to the speaker's podium for weeks. Most recently, to prevent the passage of the 2014 budget, they barricaded the speaker in his own office. When the deputy speaker escaped by climbing out the window, they seized deputies' electronic voting cards, physically injuring several fellow member of parliament in the process. Only when the deputy speaker ruled that voting could continue by a show of hands, and the budget passed, did the opposition condemn what had taken place in parliament that day as "illegal."

Such is the context within which the latest violence has erupted. The three parties that have cultivated this nihilism -- Svoboda, Batkivshchyna, and Udar -- can hardly be surprised at the result. At every turn they encouraged a rabid, uncompromising hostility toward the all government authority. Their outrage at how the new laws were passed also hardly seems justified. After all, if they had their way, the parliament would not function at all.

The White House also seems to have gotten the purpose of this legislation wrong as well. Far from being "anti-democratic," it is designed to give the authorities the tools they need to act against those who actively prefer violence to dialogue. While one might quibble over whether libel should be criminalized, or how precisely one should determine "extremism," what reasonable person would argue that to express their discontent they must camouflage their face, wear military gear, occupy government buildings, or bring traffic in the middle of a city of more than three million to a complete stand still? Should there should be no legal consequences for violence against police and threats against judges? Existing Ukrainian legislation, written for more peaceful times, had failed to consider the possibility of organized violence against the state. The omission is now partially addressed.

The current impasse, however, was not created by the Ukrainian government which, it should be recalled, tried several times over the past two months to convene a roundtable with the opposition. With but one brief exception, these were all boycotted by the opposition. Now the opposition hopes to capitalize on the chaos it has created, but faces the uncomfortable realization that it may no longer control the forces it has unleashed. At this point, sad to say, basic order has deteriorated to such an extent that the very survival of the Ukrainian political system demands the restoration of law and order in the capital. Tragically, this might now only be possible through the imposition of a curfew.

Despite this turn of events, the Ukrainian opposition, with the noted exception of the communists (who seem to have learned something from history), cling to the view that Yanukovych must be removed at any cost. They are very much mistaken.

Whether they recognize it or not, all political parties, even those in opposition, have a vested interest in respecting constitutional procedures, the role of the police, and the authority of the courts. Ukrainian politicians of all stripes would do well to recall the biblical warning that "he who troubles his own house will inherit wind."

Nicolai N. Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island, is currently a Fulbright Research Scholar in Ukraine. His website is www.npetro.net. The views expressed do not reflect the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. State Department.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.