MOSCOW — Protesters clashed with police in Kyiv Tuesday after parliament approved the second and final reading of a bill that would make Russian a regional language in the mainly Russian regions of Ukraine. Ukraine’s speaker of parliament said he was resigning to protest the way the bill was pushed through.
If the bill becomes law, Russian would be used in courts, education and other government institutions in Russian speaking regions of Ukraine. Ukrainian would still be the official state language.
Many say the measure threatens Ukraine’s sovereignty after 20 years of independence from the former Soviet Union.
Hundreds of people protested against the bill in the center of the capital Kyiv, many saying the action of parliament would phase the Ukrainian language out of existence.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s parliament approved the bill minutes after a surprise proposal by one of the leaders of the majority Party of Regions, giving those against the bill little time to cast their ballots.
Opposition leaders tried to physically stop the parliament speaker from announcing the vote. Scuffles soon broke out. Andry Shevchenk, a parliamentary deputy with the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Party, says he tried to stay to cast his vote.
"We tried to stay here [but] the police just came and tried to push us out from the stairs," he said. "They have several commanders coordinating their action, and they deployed a special police unit in riot helmets. They have orders to throw people from the stairs. It's their task."
International boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, leader of the Udar opposition party, says the vote was not fair.
"If parliament is doing everything against the opinion of the people, then it has no place as a parliament," said Klitschko. The majority of deputies are not in the parliament chamber, he added, and "there is manipulation of votes going on."
Protesters against the bill urged Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich to veto the measure that was rushed through parliament by the majority. As a result, Yanukovich called an urgent meeting with Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn.
Lytvyn later announced his resignation because the bill was passed.
"They tricked us as if we were kittens, and they have, first of all, tricked me," he said. "But on a larger scale they have tricked Ukraine, they have tricked the people, and I think that the fruits of this trickery will be [with us] for much more time to come. Under such circumstances, I ask you to consider and accept my resignation."
Yanukovich says that an early parliamentary election may be called if the crisis over the contentious passing of the law persists.
Regular elections are scheduled for October.