KIEV (AFP) ― Pro-EU Ukrainian protesters were beefing up barricades in Kiev on Saturday ahead of a new mass rally, defying President Viktor Yanukovych after he approved strict curbs on rallies in a move that provoked an outcry in the West.
In a fresh 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, who has been wrestling with nearly two months of opposition protests, signed off Friday on tough new laws introducing jail time and corrective labor for those occupying public buildings or disseminating slander on the Internet.
But the curbs are expected to reinvigorate the pro-EU opposition movement, which is pressing ahead with plans to hold a fresh rally Sunday as protesters reinforced barricades in the center of the capital with barbed wire.
Critics say Yanukovych has followed in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pushed through similar legislation after returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012 following huge protests against his decade-long rule.
“There is only one question left after newly signed laws ― quo vadis (where are you going) Mr. President?” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule asked on Twitter.
The United States and European Union have called the new laws anti-democratic, while the opposition accused the president of seeking to install a “dictatorship.”
At the height of the protests last month hundreds of thousands took to the streets in response to Yanukovych’s decision to ditch key political and trade agreements with the EU under pressure from Russia.
The rallies have since dwindled, but the opposition movement -- led by three political leaders including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko ― maintains a protest camp in Kiev’s central Independence Square.
“We are returning to Stalinism. When these laws are enforced the situation in Ukraine will be worse than in Russia or Belarus,” Leonid Tertichny from the central Cherkasy region said at the protest camp.
“But these laws have not intimidated us, they mobilized people. The protests will continue.”
Olena Oshchepovska said the new laws showed the government was afraid of its own people.
“The authorities are offering us to follow the path of Belarus but we will never agree to that,” said the protester from the western city of Rivne.
Several dozen pro-government demonstrators on Saturday attempted to hold a rally near the protest camp but were chased away.
The opposition accused the government supporters of trying to provoke fresh scuffles.
In a further sign of a mounting crisis, Yanukovych, who in previous years has attended the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, will skip the event this week.
“He will remain in Ukraine,” an official said on condition of anonymity.
The ex-Soviet country will be represented at the prestigious forum by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
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.
Yanukovych’s spokeswoman Darka Chepak may also leave, an official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Turmoil in regime in Kiev. Reports of resignations, dismissals and general uncertainty,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter.
“Regime likely to try to increase repression further.”
Ukraine’s opposition fears the tough new laws will be used to break up the opposition movement and prosecute its leaders.
Provisions pushed through parliament on Thursday also introduced the term “foreign agent” to be applied to organizations that receive funding from foreign countries.
They also permit the arrest of protesters who wear masks or helmets, among other restrictions.
Jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko accused her archrival Yanukovych of seeking to establish a “neo-dictatorship,” urging people to mount a strong response.
A lawmaker from Klitschko’s UDAR party, Sergiy Kaplin, said the opposition has begun preparing for a nationwide strike.
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.