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- Ukrainian businessman, oligarch and politician
Ukrainian language must be spoken in official settings in Ukraine according to a new law that some fear will antagonise the country's significant minority of Russian speakers.
The Ukrainian parliament passed the language law in a vote of 278 to 38 on Thursday, despite criticism from activists and politicians, including president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president who lost his re-election bid to the comedian in a landslide last weekend, said he will sign the legislation into law.
Language has been an especially contentious topic since Moscow-backed separatists in two largely Russian-speaking regions began fighting government forces in 2014, following protests that deposed a pro-Russian government.
On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin issued a decree offering Russian citizenship to residents of separatist-held areas, a move condemned by Kiev and the West as further Russian interference in Ukraine. Moscow has loudly opposed the language legislation.
Mr Zelenskiy said last week he had “questions about the law” and said “you can't take away Russian television” from the many native Russian speakers in the country.
But on Thursday his name was changed from the Russian to the Ukrainian spelling after suggestions from supporters, his campaign said.
His spokesman Dmytro Razumkov, who has made nearly all public statements for Mr Zelenskiy since he was elected, said on Thursday that Ukrainian language should be promoted “with the carrot rather than the stick”.
While Mr Zelenskiy spoke Ukrainian during a stadium debate with Mr Poroshenko before the vote, his native language is Russian and he is seeking a tutor to help him perfect his Ukrainian, his wife said this week.
The law stipulates that people acting in most official capacities speak in Ukrainian, including employees the state and communications sectors, medical and educational institutions and public transport.
The law also set quotas that 90 per cent of new films and television and 50 per cent of books must be in Ukrainian.
It bans attempts to use any other official languages as well as the “public humiliation of the Ukrainian language”. These more stringent regulations will be upheld by “language inspectors” who must be present at all sessions of state organs.
Other languages may be spoken in private and at religious services.
MP Nikolai Knyazhitsky promised that the law would not be enforced for three years, and centres will be established to help improve knowledge of the Ukrainian language.
While Ukrainian is the official state language, Russian, a related Slavic language, is often spoken in cities in the centre and east of the country.
Even in rural settings, many speak in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian known as “surzhik”.
Supporters have framed the law as another step to assert Ukraine's independence from Russia, which ruled it for centuries before 1991.
Mr Poroshenko called the law an “another important step on the path to our mental independence,” saying that “Ukrainian language is a symbol of our people, our state and our nation”.
Religious leader Filaret, one of the main voices to lobby the top Orthodox patriarch's recognition of a Ukrainian church independent of Moscow in January, spoke in parliament in favour of the law before the vote, while supporters rallied outside.
But opposition MP Alexander Vilkul said the legislation was “very harmful and splits our country”. He complained that it was not clear what would be considered public humiliation of the Ukrainian language, and worried that repeat offenders could face jail time.
The Russian foreign ministry called it “Ukrainisation by force” and contravened international norms and the country's constitution.
The legislation was hotly debated for half a year. The parliamentary culture committee said it considered more than 2,000 amendments when it revised the legislation with public input after an initial reading in parliament last autumn.