A bill granting official status to Russian and other languages has triggered a major political crisis in Ukraine, with the Speaker of Parliament resigning in protest and the President threatening to dissolve the legislature.
The 450-member Verkhovna Rada has approved the bill by 248 votes, but Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn refused to sign it citing numerous violations and tendered his resignation.
The law stipulates that any of Ukraine’s 18 regional and minority languages spoken by at least 10 per cent of the population in a certain administrative region can be used in that region as the “official” language alongside Ukrainian.
According to the latest census, 30 per cent or 16 million people in Ukraine say Russian is their native language. Under the new law, Russian would be used as “official” language alongside Ukrainian in 13 out of the 27 regions.
The law provoked angry protests in the capital Kiev and other cities, with police firing teargas and wielding batons to disperse crowds of nationalists who feared the law would marginalise the Ukrainian language.
Such fears have grounds. At least 50 per cent of Ukrainians declare Russian to be their “language of convenience”. In most Ukrainian cities, with the exception of the sparsely populated west, Russian is the dominant language in everyday life.
The Regions of Ukraine, the party of President Viktor Yanukovich, which has been losing popularity, pushed through the language bill in an effort to mobilise support in the Russian-speaking regions ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections later this year.
Mr. Yanukovich said he could dissolve Parliament and call early elections if the legislative crisis continues.