Wednesday, August 08, 2012
Ukraine leader signs contentious Russian language law into force
KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Wednesday signed into law a bill which will make Russian the official language in parts of the former Soviet republic, ignoring opponents who have warned it risks splitting the country.
Yanukovich's Party of the Regions rushed the bill through parliament last 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 as the opposition, which fears it will lead to the status of Ukrainian as the state language being eroded, fought to block it.
But Yanukovich, who is on holiday in Crimea, took advantage of the lack of political activity in the summer lull to sign it into law.
A statement by the presidential administration said he had instructed his government to take the necessary steps to adopt local legislation to take account of the new law.
Opposition politicians, including jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and one-time foreign minister Arseny Yatseniuk whose two parties have united to fight an October 28 election together, have described the bill as a "crime against the state" which could set citizens at each other's throats.
"Yanukovich has managed to do everything that the Russian emperors and the Soviet general secretaries could not do. He has passed a death sentence on the Ukrainian language," said Oleg Medvedev, an opposition political strategist, on Wednesday.
Yanukovich, himself a mother tongue Russian-speaker rather than naturally Ukrainian speaking, has made few public comments on the issue.
But his popularity would have taken a hard knock in his eastern Ukraine power base if he had failed to sign it into law.
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 those areas.
The law is likely to be a high-profile issue in the October parliamentary election when the 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.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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