Ukraine's war of words over Russian language turns violent


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The Independent Online

Lest anyone underestimate the emotional power that languages can hold over people, they need only look at the violence and anger stoked in Ukraine by a national argument over "mere" words.

Fights broke out in the Ukrainian parliament and protests erupted outside on the streets of the former Soviet republic's capital, Kiev, after the chamber backed a controversial law giving higher status to the Russian language. One MP even suffered a broken rib during the mêlée in which police used tear gas against the demonstrators.

The law, proposed by President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, now only needs his signature to come into force. But the issue has reopened deep wounds in the country, which is divided almost in half between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers.

The measure, allowing Russian to be used as a "regional language" in predominantly Russian-speaking areas, was passed in a surprise move on Tuesday night, just moments after it was proposed by a pro-Yanukovych MP, giving opponents little time to cast their votes and prompting scuffles in parliament.

Among those protesting yesterday was Vitaly Klitschko, the world heavyweight boxing champion who now runs his own political party. His arm was cut and he was tear-gassed by police outside a building where Mr Yanukovych had been due to give a speech summing up a successful hosting of Euro 2012.

Volodymyr Kulyk, of the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies in Kiev, said that while almost everyone understood Ukrainian, and it was the only official state language, it was almost never heard in eastern cities such as Donetsk, or in the southern region of Crimea.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Kolesnikov, told i last week that the proposal was "in line with all European norms and simply a matter of improving democracy". But opponents said it could be the death knell for the Ukrainian language.

"State officialdom is currently the only sphere in which many people come into contact with Ukrainian, and if we take that away, then the language is in trouble," Mr Kulyk said, adding that the survival of the language – and even the country –could be at stake.