Ukraine’s parliament has rushed through a contentious draft law upgrading the status of the Russian language, sparking scuffles between pro-government and opposition deputies who fear it will boost the country’s ties to Russia.
The chamber approved the bill in a second and final reading yesterday, minutes after a surprise proposal by one of the majority party leaders, giving opponents little time to cast their vote.
“Every [procedure] that could be violated has been violated,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the largest opposition bloc, told reporters.
Opposition MPs failed physically to stop the speaker from calling the vote, provoking scuffles with members of the ruling party. They then walked out in protest.
Language policy is an emotive subject in the former Soviet republic of 45 million people whose state language is Ukrainian, but where a significant number of people speak Russian as their mother tongue.
If signed into law by president Viktor Yanukovich the bill would recognise Russian as a “regional” language in predominantly Russian-speaking areas, such as Mr Yanukovich’s home region of Donetsk, enabling its use in public service.
Supporters of the bill argue it will make life easier for Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population. Opponents regard the use of Ukrainian as a potent symbol of sovereignty, however.
They say the bill was pushed through in order to win back disenchanted voters in the government’s power base in eastern Ukraine ahead of a parliamentary election in October.
Mr Yanukovich can now either sign it into law or veto it, a move that would win him some support in western Ukraine.