KIEV – Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday approved a law that grants special status to the Ukrainian language and makes it mandatory for public workers, a move Russia described as divisive and said discriminates against Russian-speakers.
The law, which obliges all citizens to know the Ukrainian language and makes it a mandatory requirement for civil servants, soldiers, doctors and teachers, was championed by outgoing President Petro Poroshenko.
He is expected to sign it into law before he leaves office in the coming weeks after losing re-election last Sunday to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor who mainly speaks Russian in public.
Ukrainian is the predominant language in western Ukraine, while Russian is predominant in much of the east. Both languages are spoken widely in the capital, Kiev, and a large proportion of the population speak both fluently.
Television is often bilingual, with talk show hosts and their guests slipping between the two languages, sometimes asking questions in one and answering them in another.
Language has become a much more sensitive issue since 2014, when a pro-Russian president was toppled in a popular revolt and Russia responded by annexing the Crimea region and backing a pro-Russian separatist uprising in the east.
The separatists argued in part that easterners were victims of growing discrimination against Russian-speakers. Some Ukrainian-speakers argue that the prominence of Russian is a legacy of the Soviet era that undermines Ukraine’s identity.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order simplifying the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport for residents of eastern Ukraine’s rebellious regions, prompting calls from Kiev for more international sanctions.
The European Union hit out at that move on Thursday, slamming it as an attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty that undermines an already-fragile peace agreement.
In a joint statement, France and Germany — European guarantors of the 2015 Minsk peace accord — said the Russian decree “goes against the spirit and aims of the Minsk agreement” that aims to bring peace to Ukraine’s volatile east but remains largely unimplemented.
The EU imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and has continued to prolong the punitive measures over what it maintains is Moscow’s foot-dragging in respecting the Minsk peace agreement.
Poroshenko put promotion of the Ukrainian language at the heart of his unsuccessful re-election campaign.
Zelenskiy, who played a schoolteacher-turned-president in a Russian-language comedy series on Ukrainian TV before launching his political career, said Thursday his team will examine the new law to see if the rights of all citizens are respected.
“We must initiate and adopt laws and decisions that consolidate society, and not vice versa,” he wrote on Facebook.
Zelenskiy said the draft law’s origins during the electoral cycle “made it hostage to political rhetoric,” adding that it is hard to predict the consequences of adopting the law.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the new law will deepen divisions within Ukrainian society and impose severe limitations, including in some cases bans, on the use of Russian in Ukrainian public life.
Viktor Medvedchuk, a prominent figure in Ukraine’s Russia-friendly opposition, said it violates the constitutional rights of millions of Ukrainian Russian-speakers.
The new legislation requires TV and film distribution firms to ensure 90 percent of their content is in Ukrainian and for the proportion of Ukrainian-language printed media and books to be at least 50 percent.
Computer software must also have a Ukrainian-language interface although the law also allows the use of English or any other official language of the European Union.
Lawmakers gave a standing ovation after the law was passed and sang the national anthem. Hundreds of people with Ukrainian flags had gathered outside parliament to support the law.
“This is a historic moment, which Ukrainians have been awaiting for centuries, because for centuries Ukrainians have tried to achieve the right to their own language,” one of the authors of the bill, Mykola Knyazhytsky, said before the vote.
The make-up of the parliament has not changed since Zelenskiy’s election win and remains dominated by a coalition supportive of Poroshenko.