MOSCOW - Ukrainian lawmakers have approved a language law that seeks to increase the use of Ukrainian in a country where Russian is also widely used.
The Supreme Rada on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to support the bill which will force increased use of Ukrainian in the media and in public administration.
The office of the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner as well as the Council of Europe has expressed its concern over the previous draft of the bill, saying that it could infringe the rights of language minorities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree simplifying the procedure for people living in parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists to obtain Russian citizenship, drawing a swift and angry response from Kyiv and criticism from the West.?
Shortly after Putin's decree was published on the Kremlin website on April 24, Ukraine's foreign minister called it "aggression and interference" in Kyiv's affairs and a Western diplomat told RFE/RL it was a "highly provocative step" that would undermine the situation in the war-ravaged region known as the Donbas.
Most Ukrainians switch between Ukrainian and Russian effortlessly but generations of Ukrainian politicians have exploited and encouraged the language divide in this country of 45 million.
WATCH: Russia Condemns Ukrainian Language Law
The language issue became a major point of discontent in 2014 when separatists took control of parts of eastern Ukraine after Russian officials and media fanned fears that the new pro-Western government in Kyiv would be forcing the Ukrainian language on the residents in that predominantly Russian-speaking region.
The language bill was passed a day after the Kremlin said that it would be offering fast-track Russian citizenship to Ukrainians living in the areas under separatist control. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended his decision, saying it will help people stranded in areas where Ukrainian government services are not available.
The European Union delivered formal congratulations to Ukraine's novice president-elect on Monday but made clear it expects TV comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy to pursue halting reforms, including fighting corruption.
In a joint letter as Zelenskiy's landslide victory over President Petro Poroshenko was confirmed, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker praised the conduct of the election even though parts of Ukraine remain under the control of pro-Russian forces.
But they stressed that five years after Poroshenko was elected in the wake of a
Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Russian speaker who won a whopping 73% of the vote, including in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, came out with mild criticism of the bill.
In a statement posted on Facebook, he lamented that the bill “was adopted without a prior broad discussion with the public” and vowed to look into the law once it is officially published to make sure that “all constitutional rights and interests of all Ukrainian citizens are respected.”
Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko who stays in office until next month has rejected the criticism and said he would sign it into law.