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Russian becomes an official language of Ukraine, threatens to split country

KIEV -- 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 Oct. 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.

In an apparent attempt to assuage his critics, Yanukovych also set up a body to promote the use of Ukrainian.

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.

Critics see the change as a threat to this former Soviet country's identity and its hopes of moving further away from the Russian fold.

The law leaves Ukrainian as the only state language, but it allows public servants and citizens to file official documentation in Russian at government bodies, courts and other state institutions in the regions where more than 10 percent of residents are Russian speakers.

Ukraine's sizable Russian-speaking minority won a major victory on Wednesday when a new law was approved that allows the official use of the language in many regions.

Russian is spoken predominantly in the east and south of the country, while Ukrainian is spoken in western Ukraine. But Ukrainian has picked up across the country since the nation became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to a 2001 census, 68 percent of Ukrainians name Ukrainian their native tongue, while 30 percent said it was Russian. Another census is scheduled for next year.

Opponents say the law could upset Ukraine's fragile linguistic balance by removing incentives for millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians to learn to speak and write Ukrainian.

Critics also fear the law will push Ukraine closer to Russia and away from the West. Some have called the law a cheap ploy by Yanukovych to win votes in the Russian-speaking east, his support base, ahead of October's parliamentary election.

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