EuroMaidan, the anti-government protests launched on Nov. 21, has put the spotlight on Ukraine’s worsening record regarding human rights, police brutality and media freedom under President Viktor Yanukovych.
In its second month, EuroMaidan activists have suffered physical assaults and say they are facing politically motivated criminal investigations.
In December alone, according to Kharkiv Human Rights Group director Yevhen Zakharov, more than 50 journalists were assaulted – mainly by police – including 40 on Dec. 1 alone, when a large rally erupted in central Kyiv in response to a violent police crackdown on Independence Square the day before.
The most high-profile case involves the Dec. 25 beating of Tetyana Chornovol. Despite presidential orders to bring those guilty to justice, police have yet to announce who ordered the attack or why it took place. Activists believe investigators are stalling and fear a cover-up. Chornovol specialized in exposes on the lavish properties owned by Yanukovych as well as other members of the political elite. On Jan. 7, she identified Yanukovych as the prime suspect in ordering the attack on her, prompting a presidential denial on Jan. 9.
Despite an amnesty law in force concerning EuroMaidan protesters, four activists remain in custody for taking part in rallies, according to Kharkiv Human Rights group member Halya Coynash. She identifed the four as Yaroslav Prytulenko, Andriy Dzyndzya, Viktor Smaliy and Volodymyr Kadura.
As of Jan. 3, police pressure in the form of home visits and requests for statements has been applied to 70 activists who have taken part in a roving automobile rally to hold demonstrations at residences of the nation’s leadership, says the group’s leader Dmytro Bulatov. Police say there is no political motive behind their actions.
Two members of a police traffic watchdog also remain in custody, while other members of the group have been assaulted.
Members of parliament are not immune. Svoboda lawmaker Andriy Ilyenko was beaten not far from a Kyiv police station on Jan. 4 together with his lawyer. Police denied any involvement in the matter.
Seven vehicles belonging to EuroMaidan activists in Kharkiv, the nation’s second largest city, have been set on fire. Two of them belong to local politicians from the opposition Batkivshchyna and Svoboda parties.
Other reports of violence being used against EuroMaidan activists in the regions have taken place in Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Rivne.
Although authorities say they are just doing their jobs, their actions are seen as heavy-handed attempts to intimidate activists. “Each time the government uses force, it only provokes resentment from the other side…I believe EuroMaidan can be radical but peaceful,” said Zakharov.
While some call it a continuous campaign of creeping authoritarianism, political analyst Serhiy Taran characterized law enforcement’s actions as “selective repression.”
“For a government to be absolutely authoritarian, it needs to either have a strong ideology, a strategic resource like oil and gas, a charismatic leader or a dynamic economy — all of which Ukraine lacks,” said Taran, who heads International Democracy Institute think tank.
He thinks that the targeted repression “is futile.”
“If (the authorities) believe that they could scare 100,000 people into going home, then this is a sign that it doesn’t understand people because the more pressure that is applied, the more it will mobilize the populace. It illustrates that the government doesn’t understand how Ukrainian society works,” continued Taran.
If the repressions intensify, so will the anti-government rallies, said Zakharov.
Zahharov, however, is considered that far-right radicals, including some in the opposition Svoboda Party, will overreact to government-incited provocations or use of force.
Taran just wonders how long all of this will last, including “whether the people of EuroMaidan have enough energy and creativity to endure until the 2015 presidential elections.”
Polls show that Yanukovych would lose a second bid for president to one of his main challengers, including imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and opposition leaders Petro Poroshenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Vitali Klitschko.