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Language law will split Ukraine, opposition warns

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July 30, 2012, 3:34 p.m. | Ukraine — by Reuters

Opposition politicians warn that a law making Russian the official language will set citizens at each other's throats.
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Opposition politicians walked out of Ukraine's parliament in protest on Monday after warning that a law making Russian the official language in parts of the former Soviet republic would set citizens at each other's throats.

President Viktor Yanukovich's Party of the Regions rushed the bill through parliament earlier this month in what opponents saw as an attempt to rally public support in Russian-speaking regions ahead of an October parliamentary election.

The move led to street protests in the capital Kiev and brawls in parliament. The chamber went into recess until September, leaving the bill in limbo, but last week parliament said it would reconvene for an extra session on Monday.

Arseny Yatseniuk, leader of the opposition Front of Change party, described the bill as a "crime against Ukraine and the Ukrainian state" during the special session on Monday.

"We regard this as an anti-constitutional manoeuvre - it does not exist for us as a law," he said.

Ivan Zayats, a deputy of Our Ukraine, another opposition party, said: "This law will set Ukrainians of the left bank against the right, north against south."

Opposition lawmakers then left the special sitting in protest, before parliament - dominated by the Party of the Regions - voted against any changes to the bill, which has passed its second and final reading.

POWER BASE

The way is now clear for parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn to send the bill to Yanukovich for his final signature. Lytvyn won a vote of confidence from parliament on Monday despite having formally resigned over the language row.

Yanukovich has not yet expressed his view on the bill, but his popularity would take a hard knock in his eastern Ukraine power base if he failed to sign it into law.

About 1,000 opposition protesters attempted to rally near parliament on Monday but were barred from getting close to the main building.

While Ukrainian is the only state language, the bill would make Russian an official regional language in predominantly Russian-speaking areas in the industrialised east and southern regions such as Crimea where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based.

Opponents of the bill, who regard the Ukrainian language as a touchstone of sovereignty and independence from Russia, say it will mean that knowledge and usage of Ukrainian will die out in those areas.

Passions remain high, however, and the law is likely to be a high-profile issue in the Oct. 28 election when Yanukovich's Party of the Regions will have to work hard to maintain its majority after unpopular government policies on pensions, taxation and the cost of home utilities.

With former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko still in jail on a charge of abuse of office, Yatseniuk, whose party has united with her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, has effectively become head of the opposition.

The Kyiv Post is hosting comments to foster lively debate. Criticism is fine, but stick to the issues. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks will be removed from the site. If you think that a posted comment violates these standards, please flag it and alert us. We will take steps to block violators.
from eu July 30, 2012, 4:14 p.m.    

70 years of ussr and russification don't teached you nothing.......

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cedrik July 30, 2012, 5:45 p.m.    

This law has nothing to do with 'Russian language' and everything to do with the the rights of the people. If the loyal opposition feels so strongly about the bill, which includes about 10 other languages in addition to Russian, then the solution is simple. Put it to a popular vote. If the law wins the majority of votes, it's law. If it does not, then it's dead.

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Phill M July 30, 2012, 9:16 p.m.    

The problem with the law is not its elevation of the status of the Russian language within Ukraine. The problem with the law is it makes a demand that a language must be natively spoken by 10% or more of the population of a region for that language to obtain status as an official language-- and that status applies only within that region.

This is different from the 2005 Ukrainian ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, in which the languages of ethnic minorities were recognized, and not limited by region or by size of population.

The inclusion of 10% per region in order to qualify disincludes most of the languages previously granted status under the European Charter, as few make up more than 10% of the population of a region. Only the Autonomous Republic of Crimea holds a language group besides Ukrainian or Russian which makes up more than 10% of its population.

Sadly, Ukrainian news media seems to be shy on revealing if the definition of 'Region' refers to a raion or an oblast (or if another administrative block). Currently, I haven't been able to find any information on what the law regards as a region (though it is assumed that it is referring to oblasti). In which case, the bill should be deemed unfair due to its exclusion policy (the requirement for 10%). If it is regarding raions, the bill may be too specific (it includes almost everyone).
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I do agree with multilingualism, I just think that the law that is trying to be passed is half-assed thought out.

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cedrik July 30, 2012, 10:55 p.m.    

Phil, the 'ukazi' from on high in 2008 clearly stated that ONLY Ukrainian was to be used in ANY official documents, regardless of region or Oblasti. Hence this law.

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Roman Dawydiak July 31, 2012, 1:23 a.m.    

There would appear to be some continuing confusion over the new language legislation. Some of it is deliberate amd some of it is not. In any enlightened society the concept of multilingualism should be viewed in a positive sense as it promotes openness and works against unwarranted prejudice (usually but not exclusively against minorities). The major problem with the current bill is not so much what is said but that which is not said. Those who feel strongly in the defence of the Ukrainian language perceive this legislation as undermining the role of that said language as the sole official language of Ukraine. In other words if another language supplants the Ukrainian language in whatever region there is no guarantee nor will there be any incentive to learn the official lingua franca of Ukraine. In essence all this will do is reinforce and encourage existing divisions in Ukrainian society. There must be provisions to be inclusive for the protection of all languages and cultures including the Official language of Ukraine. Deviating from this perspective is a road to nowhere.

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