Eastern Ukrainian Region Of Donetsk Grants Special Status To Russian Language

KIEV, Ukraine -- The eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk granted special status Thursday to the Russian language despite warnings from President Viktor Yushchenko that such moves violated the Constitution, which declares Ukrainian the country's only official language.

An elderly Ukrainian takes part in a picket organized by Communist supporters at the regional legislature in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, May 18, 2006. The demonstrators held red flags and rallied against Ukraine's bid to join NATO and for granting a special status to the Russian language.

More than 120 of the regional legislature's 133 members voted to make Russian a regional language, allowing it to be used together with Ukrainian in state and public institutions as well as at universities and cultural institutions, said Irina Tarana, spokeswoman for the council.

The move was inspired by the fact that about 75 percent of the region's population believe Russian to be their native language, said Tarana.

The overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Donetsk region becomes the fourth area to adopt such a measure, following similar moves in the eastern region of Luhansk, the eastern city of Kharkiv and the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

"The decision was made in the interests of community ... In the region, people will communicate in such a way as it is better for them," head of the Donetsky council Antoliy Blyznyuk was quoted as saying by the Unian news agency.

Yushchenko's office has ordered prosecutors to consider a legal challenge because the moves come in conflict with Ukraine's post-Soviet constitution, which declared Ukrainian the sole state language. Blyznyuk also expressed concern that prosecutors would appeal the council decision, Unian reported.

The language issue is a sensitive topic in this ex-Soviet republic, where Russian is predominantly spoken in the east and south and Ukrainian in the west. During Soviet times, Russian predominated and now many nationalists see protecting Ukrainian as critical to national identity.

Declaring Russian a regional language is a lesser move than trying to have it declared a second state language, but it could open the door to those efforts.

Tarana said the council also adopted a recommendation to the new national parliament, calling on it to recognize Russian as a state language in Ukraine. Yushchenko has vowed to fight this.

Source: AP