Ukraine’s opposition has held a rally in downtown Kiev to protest the adoption of the law on the basics of the state language policy enhancing the status of the Russian language in the country.
Ukrainian media said there were hundreds of protesters at Tuesday’s event, but the opposition said their number reaches several thousand.
The Batkivshchyna opposition party claimed Berkut riot police units used tear gas against demonstrators, but police denied the claims.
No one was detained, police said.
The Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday approved in the final reading a bill significantly enhancing the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. 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.
The opposition cried foul over the vote on the bill. It said the vote 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.
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.