Ukrainian lawmakers sing the national anthem after a vote, in parliament, in Kiev, Ukraine,Thursday, April 25, 2019. The Ukrainian parliament has approved a controversial language law in the largely bilingual country which provides for the mandatory use of the national language by government agencies, local self-government and in other spheres of public life. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
MOSCOW (AP) — Ukrainian lawmakers have approved a language law that seeks to increase the use of Ukrainian in a country where Russian is also widely used.
The Supreme Rada on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to support the bill which will force increased use of Ukrainian in the media and in public administration.
The office of the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner as well as the Council of Europe has expressed its concern over the previous draft of the bill, saying that it could infringe the rights of language minorities.
Most Ukrainians switch between Ukrainian and Russian effortlessly but generations of Ukrainian politicians have exploited and encouraged the language divide in this country of 45 million.
The language issue became a major point of discontent in 2014 when separatists took control of parts of eastern Ukraine after Russian officials and media fanned fears that the new pro-Western government in Kiev would be forcing the Ukrainian language on the residents in that predominantly Russian-speaking region.
The language bill was passed a day after the Kremlin said that it would be offering fast-track Russian citizenship to Ukrainians living in the areas under separatist control. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended his decision, saying it will help people stranded in areas where Ukrainian government services are not available.
Ukraine's president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Russian speaker who won a whopping 73% of the vote, including in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, came out with mild criticism of the bill.
In a statement posted on Facebook, he lamented that the bill "was adopted without a prior broad discussion with the public" and vowed to look into the law once it is officially published to make sure that "all constitutional rights and interests of all Ukrainian citizens are respected."
Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko who stays in office until next month has rejected the criticism and said he would sign it into law.