Russia slams 'scandalous' order in Ukraine to boost local language

Kiev (AFP) - Russia on Thursday slammed as "scandalous" a move by Ukraine to reduce the use of the Russian language, pushing up already high tensions days after Ukraine elected a new president.

The reaction came hours after Ukraine's parliament approved a controversial law to enhance the status of the Ukrainian language at the expense of Russian, in a move likely to rile eastern areas of the country controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

The measure increases the quota for Ukrainian-language television and radio programming and obliges all Ukrainians to speak Ukrainian, making it mandatory for civil servants, doctors, teachers and lawyers under the threat of fines.

Most of Ukraine, once part of the former Soviet Union, can speak Russian, which is closely related to Ukrainian. But use of Russian has become highly politicised after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed the separatist uprising in the east.

Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko on Twitter called the new law a "historic event".

But his successor Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular, Russian-speaking comic actor who beat him in a run-off election last Sunday despite having no political experience beyond playing the president on television, vowed to review the law once he takes office in two months' time.

"After I take up the position of president, there will be a thorough analysis of this law," he said in a statement.

Russia expressed its outrage at the legislated rollback of its linguistic influence.

"It is a scandalous law, there's nothing else to call it," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

The decision would "only deepen the split in Ukrainian society and further remove the possibility of bringing an end to the ongoing Ukraine crisis," she added.

That objection, however, was expressed one day after Russia made it easier for people living in eastern Ukraine's separatist territories to obtain Russian passports -- a move roundly condemned by Kiev and its Western allies.

- Language inspectors -

According to the draft law, denigration or "neglect" of Ukrainian will be deemed a criminal offence and language inspectors will hunt down violations.

But fines will not be applied for the first three years, while centres are set up around the country to support the learning of the Ukrainian language.

The east and south of Ukraine are primarily Russian speaking. Ukraine also has sizeable ethnic Hungarian and Romanian minorities in the west of the country.

Poroshenko compared the adoption of the law to the regeneration of the army and the creation of a unified Ukrainian Orthodox church -- another move that riled Russia.

But analysts said it poses a challenge for Zelensky, who often speaks Russian at public events.

Political expert Anatoliy Oktsysyuk said Zelensky has so far played a "balancing act" on the issue but "now he will need to decide: either he is for or against it".

- Putin 'ready to restore ties' -

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not congratulated Zelensky on his election win but on Thursday said he was ready to restore full relations with Kiev following the vote.

"We want and we are ready to fully restore relations with Ukraine. But we cannot do this unilaterally," he told journalists following a summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok.

Putin defended the decree he signed Wednesday making it easier for residents of Ukraine's separatist territories to obtain Russian passports, saying it was of "humanitarian character".

The decree is aimed at people living in the unrecognised Donetsk and Lugansk republics that broke away from Kiev in 2014 and are governed by Moscow-backed rebels.

Zelensky called for more international sanctions on Russia in response to the passport decree and the European Union called it a fresh attack on Ukrainian sovereignty.

Officials in Kiev said the timing of the decree was aimed at destabilising Ukraine during a period of transition and the Kremlin was testing political novice Zelensky.

The EU also condemned the move, saying it violated the Minsk agreements aimed at ending the conflict in the east.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting