Ukraine's sizable Russian-speaking minority won a major victory on Wednesday when a new law was approved that allows the official use of the language in many regions. Critics see the change as a threat to this former Soviet country's identity and its hopes of moving further away from the Russian fold.
The law, signed by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, leaves Ukrainian as the only state language, but it allows public servants and citizens to file official documentation in Russian at government bodies, courts and other state institutions in the regions where more than 10 percent of residents are Russian speakers.
Russian is spoken predominantly in the east and south of the country, while Ukrainian is spoken in western Ukraine. But Ukrainian has picked up across the country since the nation became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to a 2001 census, 68 percent of Ukrainians name Ukrainian their native tongue, while 30 percent said it was Russian. Another census is scheduled for next year.
Opponents say the law could upset Ukraine’s fragile linguistic balance by removing incentives for millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians to learn to speak and write Ukrainian.
Critics also fear the law will push Ukraine closer to Russia and away from the West. Some have called the law a cheap ploy by Yanukovych to win votes in the Russian-speaking east, his support base, ahead of October’s parliamentary election.
Pro-Western opposition forces led by jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko vowed to annul the “anti-Ukrainian law” and bring Yanukovych to justice. Her party also protested a decision by election officials to ban Tymoshenko and her jailed former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, from running in the election.
The legislation that Parliament approved regarding the Russian language caused violent brawls among lawmakers and during street rallies, and Yanukovych’s move will likely fuel further protests.
In an apparent attempt to assuage his critics, Yanukovych also set up a body to promote the use of Ukrainian.