Ukrainian was suppressed in Soviet days, but has enjoyed a resurgence since the country gained independence in 1991 and is seen by many as a vital element of Ukrainian statehood.
Opposition demonstrators clashed violently with police in Kiev on Wednesday as they protested against plans to broaden the rights of Russian speakers, which they fear could drive a wedge between Ukraine’s western and eastern halves.
Riot police and protesters used tear gas against each other as demonstrators opposed what was widely seen as an attempt by president Viktor Yanukovich to boost the fortunes of his flagging party ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in October.
The clashes forced Mr Yanukovich to cancel an appearance where he had planned to trumpet Ukraine’s success in co-hosting the Euro 2012 football championship which ended on Sunday.
They marked the start of a potentially turbulent run-up to the October ballot, where Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party faces a battle to retain control of parliament – a key element of the president’s political dominance since he beat the now-imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko in presidential elections in 2010.
The language issue is a political faultline in the former Soviet republic, whose eastern portion is mainly Russian-speaking, while the west speaks largely Ukrainian. Ukrainian was suppressed in Soviet days, but has enjoyed a resurgence since the country gained independence in 1991 and is seen by many as a vital element of Ukrainian statehood.
The controversial bill boosting the status of Russian was fast-tracked through a second reading marked by scuffles in parliament on Tuesday, with opponents alleging numerous procedural violations.
Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight boxing champion turned opposition leader, was among Wednesday’s demonstrators, despite being a native Russian speaker. “We should have one state language,” he said.
Volodymyr Lytvyn, the parliament speaker and a Yanukovich ally, offered to resign as he backed opposition claims that the language law was adopted unfairly in his absence by Mr Yanukovich’s ruling majority without consideration of amendments.
Later on Wednesday, Mr Yanukovich appeared to distance himself from the draft legislation, saying he would study it carefully before deciding whether to sign it into law. But he also threatened to end disorder in parliament by calling snap elections ahead of October.
Much is at stake for Mr Yanukovich in an election in which polls suggest a 1 percentage point gain could make or break his party’s chances of maintaining control of parliament.
Opposition and many western leaders accuse Mr Yanukovich of using selective justice to neutralise political opponents, above all Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister. Recent polls indicate the opposition could win the election, breaking the monopoly on power Mr Yanukovich and his party established after he narrowly beat Ms Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election.
Mr Yanukovich’s party has long pledged to adopt Russian as a second state language, and it says the bill is a compromise that stops short of this. But opponents, supported mostly by Ukrainian-speaking voters from western and central Ukraine, view the bill as a potential Trojan horse. It would allow any region where more than 10 per cent of citizens claim a language as “native” to grant that language the status of “minority” tongue.
Local citizens could then address and be addressed by government in this language, in addition to Ukrainian. Legislation, court hearings, birth certificates and building signs would be in more than one language.
Opponents fear adoption of Russian as a minority language could spread rapidly, challenging Ukrainian and causing splits between east and west Ukraine. Several lawmakers in Russia, which is pushing for closer integration with Ukraine, welcomed the bill.
Polls show most citizens are more concerned with economic troubles. Analysts said the language law was a bid by Mr Yanukovich and his party to win back core voters.
“The obvious purpose is to polarise society, in turn mobilising the eastern Ukrainian, Russian-speaking electorate, and to distract people from the failings of government, corruption and economic ills,” said Andreas Umland, an associate political science professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. He added this was a “risky” tactic that could test Ukraine’s cohesion.
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