Ukraine move on Russian language may fuel tension

KIEV Wed Sep 8, 2010 7:31pm IST

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KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's Russian-speakers are making a new push to upgrade the official status of the Russian language, disappointed by President Viktor Yanukovich's failure to do so even though he has tilted key policies towards Moscow.

A Slav language related to Russian, Ukrainian is the sole state language and is used at official state and government functions, in parliament and in the courts.

But 30 percent of the ex-Soviet republic's 47 million population, mostly in the industrial east and in the south, are mother tongue Russian speakers, many of whom are pressing for their language to be put on a par with Ukrainian.

The touchy issue is bound up with Ukrainian nationalist sentiment and sovereignty. Past attempts by Russian-speakers to reassert the pre-eminence of their language have provoked demonstrations in nationalist areas of the west, where the status of Ukrainian is fiercely defended.

The arrival in power last February of Yanukovich, who himself is from a Russian-speaking background, raised hopes among many Russian-speakers that he would put their language on a par with Ukrainian.

But, though he has slanted policy towards Moscow in key areas, he has disappointed many in his power base by not acting on an election promise to get Russian upgraded to the level of a state language -- something that would anyway require a change in the constitution.

On Wednesday, deputies from the parliamentary coalition backing Yanukovich began pushing a draft law that would codify the right of Ukrainians to decide what language their children are taught in at school, and also remove Ukrainian as the sole language of the courts.

BI-LINGUAL STATE

The proposed law amounts to re-defining Ukraine as a bi-lingual state, the business daily Kommersant said in its online edition.

"I do not see anything bad about Russian-speaking people reading the works of (Russian writers Alexander) Pushkin and (Fyodor) Dostoyevsky in the original," Kommersant quoted communist party deputy Katerina Samoilik as saying.

But one opposition deputy dismissed the draft law as a tactic to shore up flagging support for Yanukovich's Regions party in its power base before local elections on Oct. 31.

"It's simply pre-election technology for the local elections. The popularity of the Regions party is falling in Russian-speaking regions -- in the south and in the east," Iryna Gerashchenko, a deputy of the opposition Our Ukraine faction, said in comments to Reuters.

Gerashchenko said the law was likely to be passed by parliament where pro-Yanukovich deputies have a majority. But any change to the constitution would require 300 votes in the 450-seat parliament, something well beyond reach at the moment.

Aides of Yanukovich say he carries out his official duties in Ukrainian and he speaks Ukrainian at state occasions -- though it does not come easily to him.

His prime minister, Mykola Azarov, has never learned Ukrainian properly since moving to Ukraine from Russia in 1984, and grapples awkwardly with the language when speaking publicly.

(Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov; editing by David Stamp)

(For more news visit Reuters India)

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