A few dozen opposition activists on Tuesday started a picket of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, to protest a bill significantly enhancing the status of the Russian language in the country.
“We are starting an indefinite picket of parliament and demand that this draft law not be adopted in the second reading,” BYT-Batkivshchyna parliamentary faction deputy Yuriy Odarchenko told journalists.
The Rada on Tuesday adopted the bill “On the basics of language policy” in the first reading. If the draft law is adopted as a whole, 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 bill was passed by 234 votes with a required minimum of 226.
The parliamentary opposition vowed to block the second reading of the bill, and members of the opposition factions walked out of the Supreme Rada in protest against it.
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.