Police fired teargas and used batons to disperse hundreds of protesters in Kiev on Wednesday and Ukraine's parliament speaker offered to quit after the passing of a law to boost the status of the Russian language in the former Soviet republic.
Protesters, led by opposition members of parliament
defending the role of Ukrainian as the only state language, h ad
massed in front of a building where President Viktor Yanukovich
was due to hold a press briefing.
The chamber approved the language bill on Tuesday, minutes
after a surprise proposal by a pro-Yanukovich deputy, giving
opponents little time to cast their vote and prompting scuffles
both in parliament and on the streets.
“There are millions of us and they cannot pretend that
nothing has happened,” said Vitali Klitschko, the world
heavyweight boxing champion who has founded his own opposition
party – Udar (Blow), and took part in Wednesday’s protest.
Prostesters urged Yanukovich, who had planned a celebratory
statement to crown the successful co-hosting of the Euro 2012
soccer tournament, to veto the bill, pushed through by his own
majority Party of Regions.
Yanukovich cancelled the briefing and called an urgent
meeting with leaders of major factions and Parliament Speaker
Volodymyr Lytvyn, who had asked for amendments to the bill and
tendered his resignation because of the way it was forced into
The president later said Ukraine may have to hold an early
parliamentary election if the crisis in the chamber persisted.
Parliament’s website said that Mykola Tomenko, a deputy
speaker, had also stepped down. Tomenko belongs to jailed
opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko’s BYuT parliamentary faction.
The bill, which will not become law until first Lytvyn and
then Yanukovich have signed it, would recognise Russian as a
“regional” language in predominantly Russian-speaking ares,
enabling its use in the public service.
Opponents of the bill say it was pushed through by
Yanukovich’s party in order to win back disenchanted voters in
its Russian-speaking power base ahead of a parliamentary
election in October.
But opposition parties and millions who speak Ukrainian as
their first language see the bill as a potential threat to
Ukrainian sovereignty and its 20 years of independence since the
break-up of the Soviet Union.
“This bill would push the Ukrainian language out of use,”
said one of the protesters, 40-year-old entrepreneur Yuri
Chernyak. “It might be too late but we must do something and not
More protests were planned across the country, opposition
party Batkivshchyna said, and many protesters stayed out on the
streets of central Kyiv overnight.
Another opposition leader present at the scene of the Kiev
protests, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said: “There are all signs of a
real political crisis in Ukraine and it will develop further.”
A protest also took place in the western city of Lviv where
its activists blocked the entrance into the regional government
building, Batkivshchyna said.
People in large swathes of Ukraine, notably the eastern
industrial heartland, speak Russian as their mother tongue.