Ukraine's Crimea Calls Vote On Russian Language

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- The parliament in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, a region populated mainly by ethnic Russians, on Wednesday called a referendum on granting official status to the Russian language alongside Ukrainian.

Swallow's Nest Castle, Crimea

But public prosecutors in Crimea said they would contest the move, the subject of heated disputes in the early years of post-Soviet independence, as unconstitutional.

A total of 53 members of the 100-seat parliament in the region, which enjoys self-government, voted to hold the plebiscite alongside Ukraine's March 26 parliamentary election.

The issue of equal status for Russian invariably becomes an election issue as does the state of relations with Russia, a focus of the 2004 "Orange Revolution" mass protests which helped propel liberal Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Opposition parties in the current campaign are demanding equal recognition for Russian while calling for close ties with Russia and opposing the president's call for NATO membership.

Under the post-Soviet constitution, Ukrainian is the sole state language, though the country remains split between its nationalist Ukrainian-speaking west and Russian-speaking east, more sympathetic to Moscow.

"A decision on holding a referendum has no grounding in law as Crimea has no jurisdiction over such issues," said Crimea's chief prosecutor, Viktor Shemchuk.

Crimea, once the playground of the Soviet elite, was under Russian control from the late 18th century until it was handed to Soviet Ukraine as a "gift" by Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, when communism's collapse was unthinkable.

Russian nationalists held power for a time in Crimea in the 1990s, but authorities in Kiev took steps to curtail calls for the peninsula to revert to Russia. Some nationalist politicians in Moscow still demand renewed control over the peninsula.

Independent Ukraine has consistently tried to promote Ukrainian in schools and the work place. But as Ukrainian was subjected to pressure in both communist and tsarist times, many ethnic Ukrainians still speak Russian as their first language.

Source: Reuters