Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich signed a bill into law Wednesday that makes Russian an official language in some parts of the former Soviet republic. The bow to the country's large Russian minority has outraged Ukrainian nationalists and the president's political opponents.
The bill introduced this year by Yanukovich's Party of the Regions spurred fistfights in parliament, demonstrations and hunger strikes. Opposition politicians, including jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, accuse Yanukovich of trying to boost his standing among Russian speakers ahead of October parliamentary elections. They also warn that making official the mother tongue of long-dominating Russia would remove the incentive for minorities to learn Ukrainian.
Ukraine is home to the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet and surrounded by countries where Russian is often spoken. Russian is also the native language for about a quarter of Ukraine's 45 million citizens, according to the CIA World Handbook.
In signing the controversial bill while vacationing in the Crimea, Yanukovich, a native Russian speaker himself, also called for the establishment of a commission to promote the use of Ukrainian, the Interfax news agency reported.
The new law makes Russian an official language in 13 of Ukraine's 27 regions, and will allow officials there to make public speeches in Russian. Ukrainian and Russian are closely related Slavic languages and are generally understood by anyone educated during the Soviet era, when both were taught.
Russian ceased to be an official language after Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, after a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev set the Communist-ruled, 15-republic Soviet Union on a course for disintegration.
"Yanukovich has managed to do everything that the Russian emperors and the Soviet general secretaries could not do," lamented opposition political strategist Oleg Medvedev, according to the Reuters news agency. "He has passed a death sentence on the Ukrainian language."
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Ukrainians poured into the streets of central Kiev on July 30 to protest passage of a law making Russian an official language in parts of Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovich signed the bill Wednesday, setting off new protests. Credit: Sergey Dolzhenko / European Pressphoto Agency