Kiev, Ukraine • Ukraine’s president on Friday ignored sharp Western criticism and approved controversial anti-protest legislation aimed at quashing anti-government demonstrations, which have rocked Kiev for nearly two months.
Viktor Yanukovych also fired his long-time chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin, who was seen as a more liberal counterweight to some of the hawkish members of his inner circles.
Yanukovych signed into law a series of bills passed Thursday by his loyalists dominating parliament, despite fistfights and noisy objections from the opposition. The laws significantly curb the right to protest, free speech and the activity of non-governmental organizations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Washington Friday that "the legislation that was rammed through the Rada (parliament) without transparency and accountability violates all the norms of the OSCE and the E.U."
"We believe deeply that the people of Ukraine want to affiliate and want to be associated with Europe and they want to turn in that direction," he said. "And the steps that were taken yesterday are anti-democratic. They’re wrong. They are taking from the people of Ukraine their choice and their opportunity for the future."
Kerry added that "this kind of anti-democratic maneuver is extremely disturbing and should be a concern to every nation that wants to see the people of Ukraine be able to not only express their wish, but see it executed through the political process."
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said she is "deeply concerned" by the legislation and called on Yanukovych to revise it.
Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters in Berlin the decision would "inevitably have consequences for the cooperation with the European Union." He didn’t give further specifics.
The demonstrations were sparked by Yanukovych’s decision to shelve a long-discussed economic and political treaty with the European Union. Instead, Yanukovych chose to focus on improving ties with Russia and received a pledge of a $15 billion bailout loan from the Kremlin to aid the troubled Ukrainian economy. The protests swelled to hundreds of thousands after police violently dispersed several rallies.
EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele, who has worked for years to get Ukraine to sign the EU treaty, voiced his disappointment Friday.
"I’m shocked," Fuele told Ukraine’s Interfax news agency. "It is deeply disappointing to see such a turn from the European path of Ukraine."
Opposition leaders dubbed Thursday’s legislation as unconstitutional and called for a big rally Sunday to protest the move.
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