KIEV Ukraine's parliament moved towards granting equal rights for the Russian language on Tuesday when the ruling party rushed a contentious draft law through its first reading after forming a protective cordon around the speaker.
Opponents say the bill is a cynical ploy by President Viktor Yanukovich's Regions Party to win back disenchanted voters in its traditional power bases before a parliamentary election in October.
Opposition politician Arseny Yatseniuk denounced Regions Party deputies as traitors after the draft law, which upgrades Russian to the status of "regional language" alongside the state language Ukrainian, was backed by 234 in the 450-seat chamber.
Last month, deputies of the opposition Batkivshchyna party of jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko prevented the issue going to a vote by blocking the podium, leading to a brawl.
On Tuesday, Regions deputies formed a cordon around parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn to allow him to rush the draft law to a vote as part of a package of legislation.
The issue has rekindled an emotional debate in the former Soviet republic of 45 million which won independence 20 years ago when the Soviet Union broke up.
Opponents of the bill regard the use of Ukrainian as a touchstone of sovereignty and say the encroachment of Russian will keep Ukraine in Russia's sphere of influence.
Though Ukrainian is the state language, Russian is the mother tongue of most people in the east and south, while Ukrainian predominates in parts of the centre and in the west.
Police threw up barriers round parliament on Tuesday as about 6,000 demonstrators, more or less equally split between those for and against the draft law, massed in nearby streets.
Regions supporters among the crowds were swelled by large numbers from Russian-speaking areas such as the Donbass mining region in the east and Crimea on the Black Sea.
They held posters declaring "Two languages - one country" and "Our children have a right to learn in their mother tongue".
"We came to defend the Russian language to force deputies to pass the law. We want medical prescriptions written in Russian, not only in Ukrainian," said Lyudmila Nyronova, a 69-year-old pensioner from the Donetsk region.
The bill will have a second reading later in the year and would become law when signed by Yanukovich. Opponents include world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko who heads the Udar opposition party.
Yanukovich's Regions Party says that giving Russian the status of a "regional language" in traditional Russian-speaking areas simply meets the aspirations of people living there.
Opponents say the move chips away at sovereignty and would mean that in traditional Russian-speaking areas Ukrainian would have no chance of becoming entrenched as a state language.
"Today we failed to win this battle. The Regions Party have won a temporary victory. They have betrayed the Ukrainian people," Yatseniuk, of the Front of Change opposition party, told parliament after the vote.
"You have 234 traitors," he told Regions deputies and those of the communists who also supported the bill.
The bill would accord Russian the status of a "regional" language, allowing people living in Russian-speaking areas to insist their children received their basic schooling in Russian.
People in those areas aspiring to, say, a career in regional administration would no longer have to demonstrate a strong command of Ukrainian, according to the draft law.
Such a law will be welcomed in Moscow where authorities complain that the language rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine are being violated. They have pressed Yanukovich, whose mother tongue is Russian, to deliver on an election promise to recognize Russian as a state language.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Robert Woodward)