A political debate over whether to enshrine Russian as an official language in much of Ukraine brought lawmakers to fisticuffs this week, playing on enduring divisions in the country over cultural identity.
The scuffle, caught on tape Thursday, was followed Friday by lawmakers blocking the podium to prevent the start of a parliament session. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside, and the spat even led the head of the Ukrainian parliament to call for dissolving the body and holding early elections, Ukrainian news reports said as the furor stretched into a second day.
The Russian tongue has been a sensitive subject in Ukraine sincein gained its independence just over two decades ago, said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. For some Ukrainians, the push to protect their language has become enmeshed with protecting the nation.
"It's like French in Quebec," said Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington. "Can you be Quebecois and not speak French? It's the same sort of issues."
The hotly disputed language legislation has been seen as a political ploy by President Viktor Yanukovich to rally his base in eastern Ukraine, where Russian is more commonly spoken. Political support for his party has softened there as pensions have been cut. Elections are coming up this fall.
“Of course far-right and far-left are not satisfied with it, because some want Russian to be the one official language, the others Ukrainian. We think that Ukraine is a multi-language and polyethnic state,” Vadym Kolesnichenko, a member of the president’s party, told Euronews.
Opponents fear that giving the official nod to use of Russian in hospitals, schools and other official institutions, even in just some parts of the country, could hurt the Ukrainian language. Jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power that is seen skeptically by many in the West, issued a blistering statement against it on her website.
“It’s a crime against history and against the people. And I seriously assert that I won’t let them do this! Listen to me, here, behind bars, I won’t let you sneer at Ukraine!” Tymoshenko said.
The bruising spectacle has put Ukraine in an unflattering spotlight once again. Already under fire from other Europeans for alleged mistreatment of Tymoshenko and scrambling to keep European leaders from boycotting the Euro 2012 soccer championship next month in Ukraine over her plight, the spat has grabbed headlines at a time when Ukraine had hoped to bask in the continental spotlight.
"Playing this card -- east versus west -- is not good for Ukraine," Wilson said. "Language is a serious issue in Ukraine. It merits a serious political discussion. But this isn't how you do it."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Video: Violent scuffles erupted in Ukraine's parliament Thursday evening over a bill that would allow the use of the Russian language in courts, hospitals and other institutions in the Russian-speaking regions of the country. Credit: Associated Press