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23 Sep, 2021 15:35

Ukraine passes sweeping new ‘anti-oligarch’ law, critics say restrictions will be used to target Zelensky’s political opponents

Ukraine passes sweeping new ‘anti-oligarch’ law, critics say restrictions will be used to target Zelensky’s political opponents

Ukraine’s parliament has voted through a flagship bill that its proponents say will clip the wings of well-heeled tycoons attempting to exert control over the country’s lawmakers and set up a new register of purported oligarchs.

On Thursday, deputies in the Verkhovna Rada backed the proposals, designed to reduce the omnipresent role money plays in Kiev’s political and public life. The new law is intended to help “prevent threats to national security associated with the excessive influence of persons with disproportionate economic and political weight in public life,” whom it describes as “oligarchs.”

Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, which has been behind a series of decisions to sanction opposition-supporting businesspeople and target anti-government news outlets in recent weeks, will establish a list of those it deems to fall into the new category.

Wealthy citizens will fall foul of the rules and face inclusion in the register if they meet three of four conditions, including having influence over the media, participating in public life, receiving funds from monopolistic companies, or having income of over a million times the country’s annual living wage. Those deemed to be oligarchs will be barred from donating to political parties and funding campaigning.

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According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the law is just the first step in cracking down on wealthy political figures. “This is about creating a cornerstone for countering the influence of oligarchs,” he said when the bill was unveiled in June.

However, critics have expressed concern that the law will not be applied equally to all those who meet the criteria and, instead, could be leveled solely at those critical of Zelensky’s government. Vladimir Bruter, a Moldovan political scientist who works with the International institute for Humanitarian and Social Research and is a member of Russia’s influential Valdai Discussion Club think tank, told Moscow’s Izvestiya newspaper there were serious risks of officials using it to abuse their power.

“This is an instrument to apply pressure to those the authorities don’t want,” he said. According to Bruter, Kiev will be able to designate political opponents as oligarchs and effectively bar them at will from politics. “The attempt to create some kind of Ukrainian definition of what an oligarch is deserves every condemnation,” he added.

Earlier this year, Kiev’s officials ordered the arrest of the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, wealthy businessman Viktor Medvedchuk. Prosecutors have refused to disclose details of the allegations against him, but they are believed to relate to financial interests in Crimea. Medvedchuk has said his arrest amounts to “political” persecution, and has accused Zelensky of trying to establish a “dictatorship.”

A number of Russian-language television channels belonging to one of the opposition leader’s fellow party members, tycoon Taras Kozak, were also shuttered under orders from the National Security and Defense Council. Kiev claims the issue is “not about free speech,” but instead about countering supposed Russian influence, despite their content being made domestically for Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Almost all of those living in the country have a command of the language, and at least a third say they speak it as their native language at home.

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