WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation to deny visas to Ukrainian officials or freeze their U.S. assets if there is an escalation of violence against anti-government demonstrators.
Both Democrats and Republicans have condemned harsh measures during weeks of protests by hundreds of thousands of people protesting President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to scrap a trade deal with the European Union and steer Ukraine closer to Russia.
Concerns in the U.S. Congress rose after the Ukrainian authorities sent battalions of riot police with bulldozers into a protest camp overnight. Dozens of police and demonstrators were hurt in scuffles.
“We’re going to be watching Yanukovich’s conduct very carefully,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, chairman of the Senate’s Europe subcommittee.
“His conduct over the last 24 hours is unacceptable, and if he continues to use bulldozers and batons to break up peaceful demonstrations, there could be consequences, real consequences, from the Congress,” Murphy told Reuters.
Senate and House of Representatives aides said there have been discussions at the staff level about Congress responding to the unrest in Ukraine with sanctions, visa restrictions or legislation along the lines of the Magnitsky Act.
Congress passed the act last year in response to the 2009 death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison. The act bars Russian officials believed to be involved in human rights abuses from entering the United States, and freezes their assets in the country, angering Moscow.
Keen to thwart Russia’s influence and protect human rights, the United States has harshly criticized the government in neighboring Ukraine this week, with Secretary of State John Kerry expressing “disgust” at the overnight sweep by police on Kiev’s Maidan Square.
The State Department said on Wednesday it was considering all options, including sanctions.
U.S. lawmakers’ intention on Ukraine is to put in place tough measures against the government that could be invoked quickly in case of a harsher response by Yanukovich. They hope the threat will influence the Kiev government to use restraint.
U.S. Senator John McCain, a leading Republican foreign policy voice, also condemned the violence.
“We will keep the world’s attention on Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, justice, and opportunity, and we will demand consequences for any crimes perpetrated against Ukrainians who are peacefully exercising their fundamental human rights,” McCain said in a statement.
The White House urged Yanukovich to abide by the will of the people and respect the right to peaceful assembly.
Ukraine’s police have been criticized by the West for heavy-handedness in dealing with some protests even before the most recent crackdown. Dozens of protesters were hurt in clashes last week.
The United States and Ukraine have had a warm relationship in recent years, particularly in the 2004-2005 period. Ukraine was seen then as having a clearer Western orientation after the mass demonstrations of the Orange Revolution successfully overturned a fraudulent election victory by Yanukovich.
But despite a desire for stability in Ukraine and concern about its closer ties with Moscow, a favorite target of congressional criticism, lawmakers said they do not intend to send a message that Yanukovich, who won a second bid for the presidency in 2010, should be ousted.
“Yanukovich ... is a democratically elected leader, and traditionally, when a democratically elected leader screws up, the consequences come at the polls,” Murphy said.
“Our focus right now should be on pressuring Yanukovich to change his mind, not necessarily saying things or doing things that are going to spur more violence or the forceful removal of Yanukovich from power,” he added.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom