KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Wednesday signed into law a bill which will make Russian the official language in parts of the former Soviet republic, angering opponents who warn it risks splitting the country.
The political opposition, which has united to fight Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions in an October 28 election, also cried foul after election authorities refused to allow jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko run in the vote.
A statement by the united opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) said her exclusion by the central election commission had been carried out on Yanukovich’s direct instructions and amounted to “a violation of the rights of millions of our fellow citizens who support Yulia Tymoshenko”.
Yanukovich’s Regions rushed the language bill through parliament last month in what opponents saw as an attempt to rally flagging public support in Russian-speaking regions ahead of the October vote.
The move led to street protests in the capital Kiev and brawls in parliament as the opposition, which fears it will lead to the status of Ukrainian as the state language being eroded, fought to block it.
But Yanukovich, who is on holiday in Crimea, on Wednesday took advantage of the lack of political activity in the summer lull to sign it into law.
A statement by the presidential administration said he had instructed his government to take the necessary steps to adopt local legislation to take account of the new law.
Opposition politicians, including Tymoshenko and one-time foreign minister Arseny Yatseniuk whose two parties have united to fight the election together, have described the bill as a “crime against the state” which could set citizens at each other’s throats.
“Yanukovich has managed to do everything that the Russian emperors and the Soviet general secretaries could not do. He has passed a death sentence on the Ukrainian language,” Oleg Medvedev, an opposition strategist, said on Wednesday.
Yanukovich, himself a mother tongue Russian-speaker rather than naturally Ukrainian speaking, has made few public comments on the issue.
But his popularity would have taken a hard knock in his eastern Ukraine power base if he had failed to sign it into law.
While Ukrainian is the only state language, the bill would make Russian an official regional language in predominantly Russian-speaking areas in the industrialised east and southern regions such as Crimea where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based.
Opponents of the bill say it is a blow to the fragile sovereignty of a country long divided between regional powers and persecuted by Moscow’s tsars and its Communist leaders.
They say it will mean that knowledge and usage of Ukrainian will die out in traditional Russian-speaking areas.
Supporters of the bill say it responds to reality on the ground and will mean that Russian speakers will not be discriminated against in state sector employment on the basis of language.
The united opposition is certain to use the issue to stir passions in the run-up to the election when the Party of the Regions will have to work hard to maintain its majority after unpopular government policies on pensions, taxation and the cost of home utilities.
The exclusion of Tymoshenko who had nominally occupied the No. 1 spot on the party list of united opposition candidates came as little surprise since the constitution bans a person serving a jail sentence from running for parliament.
The charismatic 51-year-old former leader of the 2004-5 Orange Revolution street protests is serving a seven-year jail sentence for alleged abuse-of-office while she was prime minister.
Her case has led to a souring of Yanukovich’s relations with the West which says her trial was politically motivated.
The central election commission also excluded from the opposition party list of candidates Yuri Lutsenko, Tymoshenko’s former interior minister. He is serving four and a half years for alleged embezzlement and abuse of office.
In its statement, the united opposition Batkivshchyna called on its supporters to unite against a “regime of poverty and corruption”.
“Only our joint victory in the parliamentary elections will allow us to get rid of the anti-democratic ruling regime and free Leader of the Opposition Yulia Tymoshenko and other political prisoners from jail,” it said.
Additional reporting by Natalya Zinets; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Rosalind Russell