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Protesters rally against Ukraine's proposed languages bill

By Alexey Yaroshevsky, for CNN
updated 4:50 PM EDT, Sat July 14, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Protests, including a hunger strike, have been ongoing for the past two weeks
  • The bill aims to provide regional status to the 18 languages spoken by minorities in Ukraine
  • Protesters worry the Ukrainian language will be undermined by the bill
  • The bill's sponsor says the legislation is necessary if Ukraine wants to join EU

Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) -- Several dozen protesters picketed a cultural center in Kiev, Ukraine, on Saturday as part of continued demonstrations against a controversial regional languages bill.

At least 12 people have joined a hunger strike over the past two weeks in protest of the bill, introduced in May by the ruling Party of Regions.

One student was hospitalized Saturday in life-threatening condition after seven days on hunger strike, according to Kiev Mohilyan Academy, where the young woman studies. In total, four protesters have been admitted to clinics for treatment over the past three days, Ukraine's health ministry and the protest movement said.

The protesters fear that the future of the Ukrainian language will be severely undermined by the bill, which aims to provide regional status to the 18 languages spoken by ethnic minorities in Ukraine, including Russian, Romanian and Tatar.

Under the bill, minorities would be able to have their mother tongue taught in schools and use those languages in official documents, among other benefits.

The architect of the bill -- parliament deputy from the ruling party Vadim Kolesnichenko -- says such legislation is necessary if Ukraine wants to become part of the European Union.

"We've had many checks on the human rights issues in Ukraine by European organizations -- and they noticed many violations. Minority languages has been one of them. Our bill is written in full compliance with the European charter for minority languages, which is aimed at preserving minority languages and protecting them," Kolesnichenko said.

The bill doesn't stipulate that Ukraine may have several official state languages -- something which can be changed only through a nationwide referendum. However the opposition insists that providing even a regional status to the Russian language -- widely spoken in 13 regions of the country by roughly 20 million people -- would severely undermine the development of the Ukrainian language. The protesters fear that should the use of Russian be legalized, nobody would want to learn Ukrainian.

Parliament sessions in recent months on the controversial bill have erupted in fistfights between Ukraine's legislators as deputies opposing the bill clashed with those from the ruling party.

Earlier this month, the bill passed the second hearing in the Rada with 248 deputies voting for it. The opposition claims the vote was rigged and called on President Viktor Yanukovich not to ratify the bill and prevent it from becoming law. The president hasn't yet responded to those demands.

"We issued an ultimatum to the authorities to abolish this bill. There has been no intention or even a hint from President Yanukovich that he could do so. That's why our hunger strike would continue for weeks or months -- as long as we are alive," said Oleksandr Mishura, a member of the protest movement.

Valeriy Shevchenko traveled to Kiev on Saturday all the way from a village in Western Ukraine to participate.

"We have to defend our language and our culture -- the two things most dear to us," he said.

While protesters continue their standoff, the government is producing few comments on the matter. The final say is with Yanukovich, who is still weighing whether to put his signature on the bill, but promises to respect all sides of the conflict. But Ukraine's leader already said that if the crisis is not resolved, a dissolution of parliament and an early ballot cannot be ruled out.

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