Thousands of demonstrators massed in Ukraine's capital Tuesday, as parliament backed a controversial bill that would make Russian the country's second language.
An estimated 6,000 people gathered outside the parliament building in Kyev. The crowd was divided in half between those for and against the draft law.
A VOA reporter on the scene, Ruslan Deynychenko, says police supported the demonstrators who back Russian as a second language but did not allow opponents of the law to approach the parliament building. He also says police used tear gas against opposition demonstrators, noting several people were beaten and injured.
“The truth is that pro-government forces, people who support the Russian language, they were in front of the parliament, and they got the full support from the police and got everything to demonstrate. And on the opposite side were people who disagree with the government’s policy, and the police, they didn’t allow them to approach the parliament. So people were divided by police, and there were several times that pro-Ukrainian forces, they tried to approach the parliament, so there were some fights between the police and between regular people,” Deynychenko said.
In parliament, 234 lawmakers in the 450-seat chamber voted for the bill Tuesday. Deynychenko reports the measure is expected to become law after parliament votes on it a second time.
The bill calls for Russian to become the official language in Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking eastern region.
President Viktor Yanukovych supports the legislation, but pro-Western opposition lawmakers say it threatens Ukraine's independence from Russia.
Ukraine is separated into the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions and the Ukrainian-speaking western region.
Last month, a parliament debate on Russian as the second language descended into chaos, as lawmakers loyal to President Yanukovych scuffled with opposition legislators. One lawmaker was sent to the hospital.
At the time, parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said the fight showed the chamber could no longer work together. He called for it to be disbanded and early elections held. Most parties dismissed the idea because elections are scheduled for October.