Ukraine protesters gear up for rally amid protest curbs

Agence France-Presse

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Pro-EU Ukrainian protesters are preparing to take to the streets of Kiev in defiance of controversial new curbs on rallies decried by the West

AT THE BARRICADES. A protester stands guard on a barricade around a pro-European protesters tent camp at Independence square in Kiev, Ukraine, 17 January 2014. Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

KIEV, Ukraine – Pro-EU Ukrainian protesters were preparing to take to the streets of Kiev on Sunday, January 19, in defiance of controversial new curbs on rallies decried by the West.

President Viktor Yanukovych on Friday, January 17, signed into law tough legislation that bans virtually all forms of protests in a move the opposition called a power grab and the West said was anti-democratic.

The curbs are expected to breathe new life into the protest movement against the 63-year-old leader who late last year ditched a key pact with the EU under pressure from Russia sparking huge protests.

At the height of the protests last month, tens of thousands took to the streets calling for the president’s resignation and early polls.

But the opposition has so far been unable to unseat Yanukovych who faces election early next year.

The pro-EU movement – led by three opposition leaders including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko – have called on Ukrainians to mount a strong response to the laws and said it was preparing a nationwide strike.

Protesters, who have beefed up the barricades ahead of the new rally with barbed wire, said the time to act was now or never.

“Today I expect decisive and drastic steps from our opposition,” said Sergiy Nelipovych, a carpenter from the western city of Lutsk.

“We cannot wait any longer. We have no choice: either we win or we will slide into dictatorship,” he said, speaking at the protest camp on Kiev’s central Independence Square where temperatures plunged to minus seven degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) overnight.

The nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party warned on Saturday that government supporters were preparing a provocation which will see them “seize a gun shop or even an ammunition depot.”

The party said provocateurs might sport Svoboda insignia to give the authorities an excuse to mount a crackdown against the protesters.

The new laws allow the authorities to jail those who blockade public buildings for up to five years and permit the arrest of protesters who wear masks or helmets.

Other provisions ban the dissemination of “slander” on the Internet and introduce the term “foreign agent” to be applied to NGOs that receive foreign funding.

The opposition fears that the government will use the new legislation to prosecute its leaders and break up the protest movement.

Critics say Yanukovych has followed in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pushed through similar laws after returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012 after huge protests against his decade-long rule.

In a sign of mounting tensions, the president Friday evening dismissed his chief of staff and will skip this week’s economic forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

Yanukovych’s office said late Friday his chief of staff, Sergiy Lyovochkin, was standing down and would instead act as an advisor.

Lyovochkin first submitted his resignation after riot police brutally broke up an opposition protest late last year but Yanukovych refused to let him go at the time.

Jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko accused her arch-rival Yanukovych of seeking to establish a “neo-dictatorship”.

The protests in Ukraine – the largest demonstrations since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 – have repeatedly descended into clashes with police in which hundreds of people have been hurt. –

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