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27 Feb, 2014 13:28

Canceled language law in Ukraine sparks concern among Russian and EU diplomats

Ukraine’s swift abolition of the law allowing the country’s regions to make Russian a second official language has worried European MPs and officials, and has been condemned outright as a “violation of ethnic minority rights” by Russian diplomats.

The European Parliament has approved a resolution on Ukraine, which among other things calls on the country’s MPs and the new government to respect the rights of minorities, particularly when it comes to the use of languages.

Ukraine’s new leaders should distance themselves from extremists and avoid any provocation that might fuel "separatist moves,” MEPs said, the parliament’s press service reported. MEPs said that the new government should respect the rights of minorities in Ukraine, including the right to use Russian and other minority languages.

The resolution, proposed by six political groups in the European Parliament, urges Ukraine to ensure that its new legislation complies with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) abolished the 2012 law “On State Language Policy” the day after it voted to dismiss President Viktor Yanukovich. The law allowed the country’s regions to use more official languages in addition to Ukrainian if they were spoken by over 10 percent of the local population. Thirteen out of Ukraine’s 27 regions, primarily in Eastern Ukraine, then adopted Russian as a second official language. Two Western regions introduced Romanian and Hungarian as official languages.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Ukrainian MPs were wrong to cancel the law.

The parliament of Ukraine has made what I believe to be a mistake a few days ago, cancelling a law on regional languages,” he told CNN, commenting on the current instability in the Crimea, where the majority of the population speaks Russian. “The new Ukrainian government should signal very eloquently to the ethnic minorities in Ukraine that they are welcome in Ukraine; that they are going to be part of the new Ukraine. And also Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe, [with] its laws on protecting minorities.

A much stronger reaction earlier came from Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights.

Attack on the Russian language in Ukraine is a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights,” he tweeted in a comment on the abolition of the regional languages law.

An estimated 40 percent of the Ukrainian population speaks Russian, and the repealing of the language’s official status has been met with criticism by many citizens.

Activists in the Western Ukrainian city of Lvov, largely perceived as home to strong anti-Russian sentiment, decided to have a day of the Russian language to protest the Rada’s decision. The initiative was taken up by the city’s mayor, Andrey Sadovoy.

"I’m proud of those in Donetsk and Odessa who speak Ukrainian, although it’s not their native language. I’m proud of those in Lvov who today speak Russian in solidarity with the East of the country,” he said, Ukrainian Vesti daily reported.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has expressed its concerns over the overall human rights situation in Ukraine. Among the most acute issues, the ministry cited “infringement of the right to speak [people’s] native language, discrimination based on ethnicity or country of origin, attacks and acts of vandalism performed on monuments of historical and cultural heritage as well as on places of religious worship.” Monuments associated with Ukraine’s Soviet and imperial Russian past have been torn down all over the country in the last few days. As well as statues of Lenin, symbols of the victories over Hitler and Napoleon have also been destroyed or damaged.

Following the international and domestic criticism, acting Ukrainian President Aleksandr Turchinov ordered the Ukrainian parliament to urgently draft a new language bill, the press service of PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party has said.

The law will be “completely balanced” and will “take into account the interests of the east and the west of Ukraine, of all the ethnic groups and national minorities,” Turchinov said.