Ukrainians take to streets as MPs back Russian language
POLICE fired tear-gas and used batons to disperse protesters in Kiev yesterday after parliament voted to make Russian, rather than Ukrainian, the main language in schools and local government in some parts of the former Soviet republic.
The clashes occurred after protesters, led by opposition MPs defending Ukrainian as the only state language, massed in front of a building where president Viktor Yanukovich was due to hold a press briefing.
The language bill was rushed through on Tuesday night, after a surprise move by a pro-Yanukovich deputy, giving opponents little time to vote it down and prompting scuffles in parliament and on the streets.
Though the bill needs Mr Yanukovich’s signature and that of parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn – who has offered to step down – to become law, protesters took to the streets overnight.
The row has galvanised the Ukrainian opposition, weakened by the jailing of its leader, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, for seven years last October on abuse-of-office charges.
Tymoshenko faces separate tax evasion charges in a trial set to resume next Tuesday and will seek to have her initial conviction overturned at an appeal hearing on 12 July.
Ukraine kept her case largely out of sight when it co-hosted the Euro 2012 football tournament with Poland last month, but Mr Yanukovich has now returned to tackling fractious relations with the West and domestic political divisions.
“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 who took part in yesterday’s protest.
The 6ft 7in boxer had to have his eyes washed out after being sprayed with tear-gas. He also has his left arm bandaged after cutting it during a standoff with state police.
Protesters urged Mr Yanukovich, who had planned a celebratory statement on a trouble-free Euro 2012, to veto the bill, which was pushed through by his own majority Party of Regions.
Opposition groups and millions who speak Ukrainian as their first language see the bill as a threat to sovereignty, keeping Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence after 20 years of independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union. As black-helmeted riot police moved to push the crowds back, Mr Lytvyn himself tendered his resignation, apparently siding with the opposition which complained of procedural irregularities.
Mr Yanukovich cancelled his briefing and called an urgent meeting with faction leaders and Mr Lytvyn, although the latter chose not to attend.
Mr Yanukovich said Ukraine may have to hold an early parliamentary election if the crisis persists. But since an election is already set for 28 October, this seemed more of a rhetorical flourish aimed at preventing the situation from undermining his own popularity.
People in large areas of Ukraine speak Russian as their mother tongue and the bill would recognise it as a regional language in predominantly Russian-speaking areas in the heavily industrialised east and southern regions such as Crimea.
The bill will be welcomed particularly in neighbouring Russia whose leaders have pressed Mr Yanukovich to deliver on an election pledge in 2009 to upgrade the status of Russian.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is due to visit Ukraine on 12 July to meet Mr Yanukovich in Yalta about gas supplies. The language law seems certain to crop up in their conversation.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
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Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east