Brawls erupt as Ukraine passes language bill
Police block opposition supporters during a rally in Kiev against the language bill. AFP photoUkraine’s Parliament rushed through a contentious draft law upgrading the status of the Russian language on July 3, sparking scuffles between pro-government and opposition deputies who fear it will boost the country’s ties to Russia.
Language policy is an emotive subject in the former Soviet republic of 45 million people whose state language is Ukrainian, but where a significant number of people speak Russian as their mother tongue.
If signed into law by President Viktor Yanukovich, the last stage in the approval process, the bill would recognize Russian as a “regional” language in predominantly Russian-speaking areas such as Yanukovich’s home region of Donetsk, enabling its use in the public service.
Supporters of the bill, drafted by members of President Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions, argue it will make life easier for Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population, allowing their children to receive schooling in their mother tongue.
Police use tear gas
Ukraine police used tear gas and several people were injured yesterday at a chaotic protest against the bill as the president summoned the leaders of Parliament to limit a growing crisis.
The opposition has reacted furiously to the Parliament’s rushed passing late on July 3 of the law.
Around 1,000 people staged an angry protest in the center of Kiev and were rapidly involved in scuffles with anti-riot police. Several people were left covered in blood and broken glass littered the street. The police used tear gas in an apparent bid to bring the situation under control.
President Viktor Yanukovych also summoned Parliament’s speakers and faction chiefs for an urgent meeting to defuse the growing standoff after the Parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn offered to resign.
Lytvyn has expressed outrage that he was not warned by other Parliament leaders that they planned to vote on the language law and was not even present in the chamber when the vote took place. The meeting meant that the presidency also made the unprecedented move of postponing a major news conference by Yanukovych that was scheduled at the same time and expected to be attended by hundreds of journalists.
Last decision left to Yanukovich
This gives a boost to Russian, historically the language of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, and the opposition fears that the law will undermine the use of the Ukrainian language. Yanukovich can now either sign it into law or veto it, a move that would win him some support in western Ukraine where the majority of voters speak Ukrainian.