Foreign Language as a Political Football

Here’s a recent example of how politics and foreign languages can be explosive combinations:

Article by David M. Herszenhorn in The New York Times, July 6, 2012:

The Ukrainian Parliament refused on Friday to accept the resignation of its leader and instead adjourned for the summer, leaving uncertain the fate of a contentious bill that would allow local and regional governments to grant official status to Russian and other languages, in addition to Ukrainian.

Volodymyr M. Lytvyn, the chairman of Parliament, has refused to sign the bill, effectively blocking it from reaching President Viktor F. Yanukovich, who could sign it into law. Instead, Mr. Lytvyn submitted his resignation, challenging the Party of Regions, which holds the majority, to choose a new chairman who would let the bill go forward.

The measure was adopted Tuesday in a move by the Party of Regions that was so unexpected that Mr. Lytvyn was not even present for the vote.

Debate over the language bill has been so emotionally charged that it led to a brawl in Parliament in May. Hundreds of people demonstrated against the adoption of the bill this week, leading to violent clashes with riot police officers.

Another big protest was expected on Friday, but it was essentially called off once it became clear that Parliament would adjourn without replacing Mr. Lytvyn or letting the bill go forward.

Vadim Kolesnichenko, a member of the Party of Regions faction in Parliament, who comes from the largely Russian-speaking Crimea region, said the majority refused to consider Mr. Lytvyn’s resignation to prevent the chairman from scoring political points.

“Mr. Lytvun is interested in his election and his own personal future,” said Mr. Kolesnichenko, a co-author of the language bill. “It’s a political spectacle for his own public relations.”

Mr. Lytvyn, in a television interview, urged conciliation. “We have to do something so that there are no winners or losers,” he said. “Otherwise, Ukraine will lose.”

Under the country’s Constitution, Ukrainian is the only official language. But Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is home to millions of native Russian speakers, particularly in the eastern and southern parts of the country, where support for Mr. Yanukovich is strong.

Critics of the bill say that if it passed it would undermine Ukrainian’s status and that Mr. Yanukovich and his supporters are trying to use the issue to shore up support ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October. They say the governing party is trying to distract voters from Ukraine’s economic problems and from criticism over rising authoritarianism, including widespread condemnation in Europe over the jailing of Mr. Yanukovich’s rival, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister.

Supporters say the bill protects the rights of speakers of Russian and other languages should they make up 10 percent or more of the local population.

In his interview on Friday on the Rada television station, Mr. Lytvyn said that Parliament had committed “immense violations” in approving the bill and he urged that a working group be created to find a compromise. The group would include language experts and representatives from each of the different factions in Parliament.

He said that the bill was not given the proper number of readings, nor were amendments properly considered. “That is why it cannot be sent to the president,” Mr. Lytvyn said. “The question lies not in my signature. There are huge violations, which cannot be left as they are.”

Mikhail Chechetko, deputy chairman of the Party of Regions, denied that the bill had been passed by deceptive means and once again declared that his party had bested its opponents.

“We simply intellectually, inventively, creatively outplayed them,” Mr. Chechetko said in a telephone interview. “We didn’t give them the chance to create fights and scandals while this law was being passed.” He added, “In any country, the victorious party receives what? The right to realize its program. The party of losers? The right to criticism. These are the ABCs of politics.”

Mykola V. Tomenko, the deputy chairman of Parliament, who had also offered to resign, said Friday that he had asked the prosecutor general to conduct a criminal investigation of how the language bill was approved.


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