Riot police have deployed teargas and batons in Ukraine to repress a protest march against a new law that boosts the status of the Russian language inside the former Soviet country. Hundreds of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest against the law, which opposition deputies warn could divide the country in two and thrust one half of it into the arms of neighbouring Russia. The law, adopted amid fistfights in parliament late on Tuesday, gives Russian the status of regional language, approving its use in courts, schools and other government institutions in the country’s Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions. Ukrainian remains the country’s only official federal language. It has heightened divisions between those hoping to strengthen Ukraine’s independent post-Soviet identity and those seeking to maintain close links with Russia, a fracture that has haunted the country since the Orange Revolution in 2004. “With this law, the Russian language will become a de facto government language for eastern Ukraine,” said Ksenya Lyapina, an opposition deputy. “It’s very dangerous for Ukraine. It can lead to the division of the country.”
The Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, approved the law in a second and final reading late on Tuesday, even after opposition deputies rushed the podium in a wild melee and criticised the vote, saying it was marred by procedural violations. Volodymyr Lytvyn, the speaker of parliament, tendered his resignation on Wednesday morning.
Riot police fired teargas and wielded batons as 500 to 700 protesters gathered outside a central building where the country’s Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, was due to hold a live televised press conference, which he was forced to cancel. Around 200 people demonstrated in support of the law in front of the Rada. Opposition deputies called the bill a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty.