Ukraine’s parliament approved in a preliminary reading a law that will allow the use of Russian as a second official language in the eastern half of the former Soviet republic as more than 9,000 citizens protested outside.
The bill was backed by 234 pro-government lawmakers today in the 450-seat legislature in the capital Kiev. The law needs to be approved in two more readings and signed by President Viktor Yanukovych to take effect. The bill makes Russian an official language in eleven Ukrainian regions and the cities of Kiev and Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based.
The bill was put forward by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and caused a scuffle among lawmakers on May 24 that left hospitalized two opposition deputies from the party of Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“We were campaigning with this bill and we had voters’ support,” Oleksandr Yefremov, who leads the Party of Regions, said in remarks broadcast by Ukrainian television. The bill was voted in “completely normal way of legislative procedure.”
Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in October for abuse of power while serving as premier, helped lead the bloodless 2004 Orange Revolution, when millions of people supported Ukraine’s closer ties with the European Union and less dependence on Russia. Yanukovych, who is from the Russian language-dominated eastern part of Ukraine, has been campaigning for official recognition of the language. His party’s support has slid before October national elections.
Around 9,000 protesters gathered near the parliament in the morning. After the vote, they marched to Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in central Kiev, where the Orange Revolution took place and where the fan zone for the Euro 2012 football championship has been set up.
Ukrainian was announced as the only official language after the country got its independence as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Opposition parties said the vote today was unlawful.
“It was a temporary victory of the Party of Regions and those who decided to align with them,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an opposition lawmaker who has teamed up with Tymoshenko for the October elections, said on her party’s website. “We failed to win this battle, but we will win the war.”
The Russian language vote is “the last nail in the coffin of the authorities,” Tymoshenko said in a statement on the website of her party today.