The Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday approved in the final reading a bill significantly enhancing the status of the Russian language in the country.
The bill was carried by 248 votes with a required minimum of 226.
If the president signs it into law, Russian will acquire the status of a regional language in regions where it is the native tongue for at least 10 percent of the population, or 13 out of Ukraine’s 27 administrative-territorial entities, including the cities of Kiev and Sevastopol.
Under the bill, Ukrainian would actually remain the only state language, but restrictions would be lifted on the use of other languages spoken in the country, including Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Hungarian, granting them official regional status.
During his election campaign, President Viktor Yanukovych pledged to make Russian, a native tongue for many Ukrainians, a second state language.
Russian is still used in much of Ukraine, especially in the east, Crimea and the capital Kiev, and there is a strong movement to protect the rights of Russian speakers. The bill allows the parliament, government, and other legislative and executive bodies to publish their decisions in the regional language, and enables TV companies to broadcast in that language.
The authors of the bill maintain that it preserves the status of Ukrainian as the only state language. However, the opposition regards it as a ploy by the ruling party, ahead of parliamentary elections, due in October, to deepen divisions between the country’s Ukrainian and Russian speakers.
Seven lawmakers from the Our Ukraine - People's Self-Defense opposition faction on Tuesday night started a hunger strike in protest against the bill.
“Currently seven members have declared a hunger strike. But I'm sure that other colleagues and ordinary citizens will join it,” Vyacheslav Kirilenko, a deputy of the faction Our Ukraine - People's Self-Defense said. He added that the hunger strike would continue until the Russian language bill is canceled.
“Of course we will bring the case to court. But I can you tell you beforehand that other lawsuits over violations of pension reform were all rejected by the Supreme Administrative Court, which is fully controlled by Yanukovych,” Arseniy Yatseniuk, an Our Ukraine - People's Self-Defense deputy said.
Deputy Speaker Mykola Tomenko, who is also a member of the opposition, said he would file a case with the prosecutor's office.
The opposition has already said that the vote on the bill was invalid because it was neither on the agenda nor considered with amendments in a second reading and therefore should not have been approved at the session on Tuesday.