Freedom is fragile -- a fact that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich demonstrated today by signing a raft of laws severely limiting the freedoms of speech, assembly and protest.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and chief European Union diplomat Catherine Ashton have expressed concern, but Ukrainians who took part in 500,000-strong rallies in Kiev in December consider the Western reaction too feeble and insincere. Having lost Ukraine to Russian President Vladimir Putin's wiles, the West is now killing off the illusions of those Ukrainians who would like their country to be part of Europe.
The legislative proposals, drafted by parliament members from Yanukovych's Regions Party, are wide-ranging. They threaten fines or prison terms for broadly defined "slander;" for the creation, storage and distribution of "extremist materials;" for taking part in rallies that disrupt traffic or otherwise disturb public order; and for even suggesting that people occupy or block access to government buildings. They require nonprofit organizations receiving foreign grants to register as "foreign agents" and pay taxes. They ban motorists from forming convoys of more than five cars. Other, more technical measures were aimed at making life difficult for opposition media and political activists.
Aside from local quirks such as the ban on auto convoys, the anti-protest bills were largely copies of similar Russian legislation enacted in 2012 and 2013. Putin's opponents in Russia have dubbed their parliament the Crazed Printer for passing the measures without much discussion. "That makes our parliament a crazed copy machine," Ukrainian journalist Oleksandr Mikhelson quipped on Facebook.
The Regions Party and the Communists hold a majority in the Ukrainian parliament and control the proceedings, so the Ukrainian opposition could do nothing to prevent the bills from being passed by a mere show of hands. A frustrated opposition lawmaker, Lesya Orobets, posted a photograph of one of the votes, suggesting that no more than 120 parliament members raised their hands in support, far less than the required 226. Orobets said the bills amounted to introducing dictatorial rule. "I cannot sleep," she wrote. "I have faith that we will find a leader with a plan for decisive action and the courage to carry it out."
That is unlikely. The three leaders of the parliamentary opposition -- boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, former central bank governor Arseni Yatsenyuk and ultranationalist Oleh Tyagnybok -- have been careful to avoid calling for decisive action since the mass protests began in late November. Yanukovich ignored opposition calls to reject the bills. He also fired a chief of staff who had wavered about how to handle the protests.
After Yanukovich sparked the protests by refusing to sign an association and trade pact with the EU, Putin offered Ukraine a de facto bailout package including $15 billion in sovereign bond purchases and a cut in the price of natural gas supplied by Russia's gas monopoly, Gazprom. Both can be stopped anytime, so Putin has Yanukovych on a short leash. That may explain the Ukrainian leader's reliance on Russian recipes for quashing protest. In Moscow, the hardline measures have largely worked: The Russian capital has calmed down since its street rallies of the winter and spring of 2011 and 2012.
The hundreds of thousands of people who flooded downtown Kiev are, however, still there, and they still hate Yanukovych and Russian bullying. The question now is what hope they have of changing anything if their leaders are passive and the West won't do anything but issue statements calling for "transparency and accountability," as Kerry did on Friday. "There are no more illusions," financial analyst Sergey Fursa wrote on Facebook. "We know now that foreign countries will not help us."
The feeling among the educated, pro-European protesters is that the West could have done more both politically and financially to draw in Ukraine. Economic sanctions against Yanukovych and his small circle of business associates would also be more help than sound bites from senior diplomats. In the absence of any concrete outside help, Ukrainians either have to go home and wait for the 2015 presidential election or choose a more resolute leader and resort to violence, something they have been reluctant to do so far. For a group of predominantly middle-class protesters, it's a tough choice.
(Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)