How the Power of Language Sparked Protests

Clashes between riot police and protesters erupted in Kiev on Tuesday as Ukraine’s parliament gave initial approval to a law that will make Russian an official language and threatens to split the country along geographical and cultural lines.

Up to 9,000 demonstrators gathered during the debates on the law in the Ukrainian capital, one of the focal points for the Euro 2012 football tournament which starts on Friday.

After news emerged that 234 deputies in the 450-seat chamber had voted in favour of moving the legislation onto a second reading scuffles erupted on the streets outside the parliament buildings. Eggs and bottles were thrown by protesters at riot police who had cordoned off areas of the city, according to media reports.

Language is a powerful issue in Ukraine where Russian is widely spoken in the eastern parts of the country, including large cities such as Donetsk, which will host England’s match against France in the tournament’ next Monday.

A group of protesters opposed to the law tried to force their way onto Kiev’s Independence Square that will be a giant “fan zone” for the tournament, that Ukraine is hosting jointly with Poland.

They were countered by riot police but some UEFA signs were trampled by the crowd during the confrontation, Reuters reported.

Some protesters chanted “if there’s no language, there won’t be a euro,” linking a potential resurgence of Russian with a diminishing of Ukraine’s chances of closer ties with the European Union.

The controversial law was first introduced last year by the ruling Party of the Regions which backs prime minister Viktor Yanukovych and is seeking to bolster its support amongst its Russian-speaking political base in the face of sliding popular approval ratings. It will elevate languages spoken by “minorities” of more than 10% to the status of regional languages.

Yanukovych promised to make Russian a second language during his presidential campaign last year. Moscow has spoken out in support of the rights of Russian-speakers in parts of the Ukraine.

But the move has been vigorously opposed by the Ukrainian opposition that draws the bulk of its votes from the country’s central and western regions where Russian is less widely spoken. It has characterised the law as “anti-Ukrainian” and vowed that it will not pass a second reading in parliament.

Among the most vocal critics of the new law is former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed for an alleged abuse of her authority when in power last year. She has described the attempt to formalise the use of Russian as “a crime against Ukraine, the nation, its history and the people”.

The Ukrainian parliament, or Rada, tried to pass the bill last month, but opposition deputies formed a human chain around the speaker to obstruct the process. Their actions provoked a violent brawl inside parliament during which several politicians were taken away in ambulances.

Deputies in favour of the legislation created their own cordon around the speaker on Tuesday to ensure that a vote was not delayed for a second time.

If passed the law would change the status of Russian in 13 of Ukraine’s 27 administrative regions. Children would be able to receive schooling in the language spoken by their parents and it would reduce the need for a knowledge of Ukrainian in certain professions.

The law does not only apply to Russian but would also benefit 17 other languages such as Bulgarian, Yiddish, Crimean Tartar, German, Polish and Hungarian.

Opponents of the law have threatened to continue street protests during Euro 2012.

Taken from The Guardian: 05.06.12