Brawls erupt as Ukraine parliament passes language bill

AFP , Tuesday 3 Jul 2012

A controversial language bill over giving Russian a higher status in certain regions, creates uproar within Ukrainian parliament, in a country where language marks sensitive political differences

Deputies push each other during a session in the chamber of the Ukrainian parliament, during a vote on a bill about the basics of the language policy in Kiev, Tuesday (Photo: Reuters)

Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday passed a controversial Russian language bill in a stormy vote marked by fighting and opposition vows to boycott the rest of the parliamentary session.

In the Verkhovna Rada, 248 deputies out of 450 hastily voted to pass the bill on language policy, which gives Russian language higher status in certain regions, despite yelling, fighting and strong-arm tactics by the majority.

Amid chaotic scenes, the sponsor of the bill, President Viktor Yanukovych's Regions Party, proposed that the deputies discuss it on Tuesday even though the bill was not on the day's agenda.

This caused a scuffle near the podium where the speaker and other parliamentary leaders sit, the parliament said in a statement. An AFP correspondent saw dozens of deputies involved in the fighting.

The Regions Party then took the presidium seats and the speaker unexpectedly and suddenly announced the vote to pass the bill into law. It had already passed narrowly in the first reading in early June.

According to the official tally board in parliament, 113 out of 364 deputies present did not vote at all, and only two opposed, as most of the opposition appeared to be in front of the chamber arguing.

"We have just announced the decision by the united opposition... to leave the parliament hall. This decision holds for the current session," opposition MP Arseniy Yatsenyuk told journalists after the hearing was over.

Five lawmakers declared a hunger strike to protest "crude actions by the parliament majority" during the vote, another deputy, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, told AFP.

The number of strikers later rose to six as they stood about a block away from the parliament building with white kerchiefs saying "I'm on strike" tied on their heads, an AFP correspondent observed.

The bill had already caused frictions among Ukraine's lawmakers, most memorably causing them to break into a massive fight in the initial stages of discussion.

To become law, it still has to be signed by Yanukovych.

The bill says Ukrainian is the country's official language but states that minority languages can be used by government officials and bodies in regions where the population uses these languages.

It was immediately seen as giving a boost to Russian, which has been historically the language of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. The opposition said it makes Russian a second official language.

The bill proved highly divisive and caused protests in a country where language also marks political differences between the pro-EU western Ukraine, and Yanukovych's home base in the more industrialised pro-Russian east. 

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