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.
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
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
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.