Protest Mood Returns
Protesters and police face off during a rally of Ukrainian demonstrators in front of the parliament in Kyiv on Oct. 19. The protest leaders are demanding that lawmakers and President Petro Poroshenko create an independent anti-corruption court, end legal immunity from criminal prosecution for lawmakers and adopt a fairer election law ahead of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Ukraine saw renewed political unrest on Oct. 17, with thousands of protesters clashing with the police, blocking streets and setting up more than 50 tents near the building of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament in Kyiv.
The protesters are demanding the creation of an anti-corruption court, the lifting of lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution and a fairer electoral law — part of a long-running campaign by the Ukrainian people to take on the oligarchy, corruption and impunity.
The ongoing protest is one of the biggest demonstrations since the 100-day EuroMaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt kleptocrat supported by many of Ukraine’s oligarchs.
This also marks the first largescale protest tent camp since 2014.
On Oct. 19, parliament belatedly and only partially satisfied one of the demands, sending two bills on lifting lawmakers’ immunity for consideration to the Constitutional Court. However, the Rada rejected a bill on electoral reform and President Petro Poroshenko has failed to submit a bill on the creation of anti-corruption courts so far.
The demonstrators pledged to continue their protests until their demands are met.
The rallies underline the public’s growing frustration with the incumbent authorities and the perceived sabotage of Ukraine’s reform drive. Poroshenko and his allies have promised a fairer electoral law and canceling lawmakers’ immunity since 2014, and envisaged the creation of anti-corruption courts in a judicial reform bill passed last year. But time after time they have failed to deliver on their promises.
The protests saw the consolidation of a broad opposition movement against Poroshenko, uniting Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy’s Samopomich Party, with 26 lawmakers in the 422-seat parliament; ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces; ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party, with 19 members in parliament; nationalists from Svoboda and the National Corps, and civil society groups like the AutoMaidan and the Reanimation Package of Reforms.
Saakashvili, who was stripped by Poroshenko of his citizenship in July, and who broke through the border into Ukraine in September, played a leading role in organizing the protests. Activists from Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces brought tents to the Rada on Oct. 17, and Saakashvili also demanded that Poroshenko resign if he fails to meet the protesters’ demands.
“One (president) has already fled to Rostov,” Yuriy Levchenko, a lawmaker from Svoboda Party, said at the Rada, referring to the fugitive Yanukovych, who is on trial for largescale corruption and ordering police to kill 100 protesters before he fled. “I’m wondering where this one will flee to.”
The volunteer Donbas Battalion, which fought Russian-separatist forces in the east of Ukraine, acted as the demonstrators’ security division, installing barricades and cordons to prevent the police from dispersing the camp. The battalion is closely allied to Samopomich party lawmakers Yegor Sobolev and Semen Semenchenko, the unit’s former commander.
The Rada on Sept. 19 considered two bills on canceling lawmakers’ immunity.
The opposition bill envisages lifting immunity immediately, while the presidential bill seeks to lift immunity starting from 2020.
The president’s bill has been criticized as a deception by the opposition. Opposition lawmakers said that Poroshenko and his allies may use it as a PR stunt before the 2019 election, and the next parliament may delay the lifting of lawmakers’ immunity even further.
The Poroshenko Bloc argues that it has no intention of postponing the measure after 2020.
The Rada sent both bills for approval to the Constitutional Court. Subsequently they will be sent back to the Rada, which will need to approve them with a constitutional majority.
“If you don’t lift immunity, the Ukrainian people may lift it in another way — they’ll throw you out,” Levchenko told his colleagues in the Rada.
The election bill backed by protesters seeks to remove single-member districts and leave only party-list proportional representation. Single-member districts are seen as a major vehicle of political corruption in Ukraine, with wealthy candidates buying votes in their constituencies.
It also seeks to introduce “open party lists”, which means that citizens will vote not only for parties them- selves but also for specific candidates nominated by parties. Candidates who get more votes will move clos- er to the top of party lists and be more likely to be elected. Under the current system, party leaders can arbitrarily choose the order in which candidates appear on party lists.
However, the Rada failed to garner enough votes on Oct. 19 to pass the legislation.
The European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, on Oct. 9 supported legislation to create independent anti-corruption courts and urged Poroshenko to submit a relevant bill. However, Poroshenko has resisted the idea for more than a year and has failed to submit a bill on anti-corruption courts so far.
Iryna Lutsenko, the president’s representative in parliament, said that Poroshenko expected a bill on anti-corruption courts to be passed by the end of this year, but added that it first needs to be approved by the Venice Commission.
The opposition saw this as yet another delaying tactic. Svitlana Zalishchuk, a Poroshenko Bloc lawmaker critical of the president, said that further review was not necessary because the idea had already been approved by the commission.
People rally near the Verkhovna Rada building on Oct. 17 to demand that the Ukrainian parliament support reforms in Ukraine.
Protesters clash with police during a rally of Ukrainian opposition in front of the parliament in Kyiv on Oct. 17.