* Russian language dominant in east and south
* Single state language seen as symbol of independence
* Language bill voted in before parliamentary election
* Presidential think tank warns against provoking separatism
By Olzhas Auyezov and Lubov Sorokina
DONETSK/LVIV, July 12 Were it not for
Ukrainian-language signs on post offices and other state
institutions, one could easily mistake Donetsk, the industrial
centre of eastern Ukraine and the power base of the ruling Party
of the Regions, for a Russian city.
The language of Ukraine's former Soviet overlord dominates
the city of 1 million - nearly half of them ethnic Russians -
where a statue of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin still graces
the main square two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Famous for its coal mines, steel smelters and bloody gang
wars of the 1990s, the home city of President Viktor Yanukovich
has welcomed a move by his Regions party to restore Russian as
the language for official business in Ukraine's east and south.
"Canada has two state languages, Switzerland has four, I
think this is the right approach," said Volodymyr, a retired
mining communications engineer who complained that translating
technical documents into Ukrainian was a waste of time.
The language bill is widely seen as a bid by the party to
revive ratings hit by public disgruntlement with economic
hardship in time for a parliamentary election in October.
But whereas moves to promote regional languages elsewhere in
Europe have caused little political pain, Ukraine's bill has
touched such a raw nerve that it is now in limbo after fists
flew in parliament and protesters clashed with police.
The fierce debate it has stirred over Russian influence was
likely to cloud a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin on
Thursday to discuss the price Kiev should pay for Russian gas.
It is also another complication for one of Yanukovich's top
foreign policy goals, integration with Europe's mainstream.
The European Union is not even discussing membership yet and
shelved an agreement offering closer ties after former prime
minister Yulia Tymoshenko was jailed for abuse of power last
October, a sentence seen by Brussels as an example of selective
Many Russian speakers believe the new law protects against
encroachment by "western nationalists" such as the introduction
of mandatory Ukrainian dubbing of films by the government of
previous president Viktor Yushchenko.
For its opponents it is a blow to the fragile sovereignty of
a country long divided between regional powers and persecuted by
Moscow's tsars and its Communist leaders. Some say it could end
up splitting the country in two.
It triggered uproar in the western city of Lviv, a cultural
opposite of Donetsk featuring medieval European architecture and
a statue of Stepan Bandera, a World War Two nationalist leader
who temporarily sided with the Nazi Germans against Soviet rule.
Historically a Polish city with a large ethnic Ukrainian
population in adjacent rural areas, Lviv was annexed by the
Soviet Union in 1939. Many of its residents - who almost all
speak Ukrainian - equate Soviet rule with Russian occupation.
Opponents of the bill set up a tent camp in the city centre,
blocked all entrances of the local government building and
burned a Party of the Regions flag in protest.
"This bill aims to undermine the status of the state
language," says Maria Zubrytska, a deputy rector at the Ivan
Franko National University of Lviv.
"It is, above all, a threat to the authority of the
constitution ... a new form of neo-colonialism."
HISTORY OF OPPRESSION
Ukrainian, an allied Slav language considered a mere dialect
of Russian by the rulers of the Russian Empire - a view still
held by some Russians - was barred from schools and printing
presses in the 19th century.
The 1917 Bolshevik revolution brought only a temporary
relief as new Soviet leaders soon began enforcing the use of
Russian as a universal language across the USSR.
While the use of Ukrainian was not barred, Russian-language
schools were more prestigious and offered better prospects for
"As a first-grader, I once asked for a fairy-tale book in
Ukrainian at the school library," says Natalia, an office worker
in Kiev who grew up in the Soviet Union.
"The librarian refused, saying: 'You only start studying
Ukrainian in the second grade'."
Soviet industrialisation campaigns of the 20s, 30s and
post-war years brought an influx of millions of Russians who
mostly settled in Ukraine's eastern regions rich with coal and
iron ore deposits and were under no pressure to learn the local
The Crimean peninsula, given to Ukraine by Russia in 1954 by
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev but the base for Russia's Black
Sea fleet at Sevastopol, is another Russian-speaking stronghold.
According to a 2001 census, there were 8.3 million Russians
in Ukraine but Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, an ethnic Russian
himself who speaks Ukrainian only with difficulty, raised
eyebrows last month when he said there were 20 million ethnic
Russians in the nation of 46 million.
People in Donetsk, as well as other eastern and southern
cities, already use Ukrainian quite rarely - mostly when dealing
with government paperwork and going to cinemas.
Even court hearings, which by law must be held in Ukrainian,
are often conducted in Russian and only translated into
Ukrainian for records, locals say.
Donetsk bookseller Tetyana, 23, says books in Ukrainian
occupy only 10 percent of her shelves at best. "There simply is
not enough demand," she explains.
"The Ukrainian language just does not exist any more,"
chimes in her colleague from a nearby store who refuses to
introduce herself. "All that is left is Surzhik (a
But many Ukrainians advocate the "one nation - one language"
principle, a fact that analysts say means the bill might
backfire. According to the Razumkov centre, a local pollster and
think tank, the population is roughly evenly split on the issue.
In particular, 43.6 percent think that only Ukrainian should
be state language, 25 percent support the idea of giving Russian
official status in certain regions and 23.9 percent think it
should be the second state language.
"Many people in the Party of the Regions are themselves
questioning (the need for the language bill) because they
understand that they have given their opponents a great way of
mobilising (public support) against them," says Donetsk-based
political analyst Volodymyr Kipen.
Iryna Chernichenko, a bilingual journalism teacher in
Donetsk said it was a political game.
"I think a myth is being spread by certain politicians...
about the oppression of the Russian language and it has been
accepted as truth by some people," she said. "The adoption of
this bill by parliament is splitting the country."
The bill is now in limbo after parliament speaker Volodymyr
Lytvyn, a member of the ruling coalition, refused to sign it and
threatened to resign. The chamber then went into recess until
Yanukovich, a Russian speaker who speaks Ukrainian at state
and official functions and has back-pedalled on a 2009 pledge to
upgrade Russian, has not said whether he will sign the bill into
law if it lands on his table.
A think tank employed by his office, the National Institute
of Strategic Research, advised against any language reforms over
a year ago.
About a quarter of Ukrainians living in the eastern and
southern regions believe the East-West schism over language and
politics could eventually break up the country, it said.
"This picture demonstrates an extreme weakness, if not
absence, of a common social and cultural foundation of the
Ukrainian political nation and the presence of separatist and
irredentist trends," it said.
"...Official recognition of non-state languages in certain
regions will only complicate the situation and diminish the
state's efforts at unification."
(Editing by Richard Balmforth and Philippa Fletcher)