KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Opposition activists clashed with riot police in the center of the Ukrainian capital Wednesday and the parliament speaker resigned after the legislature passed a bill that would upgrade the status of the Russian language.
The bill, which must be signed by the president to become law, would leave Ukrainian as the only state language but allow the use of Russian in Russian-speaking regions in courts, education and other government institutions.
Members of Ukraine's pro-Western opposition say such as law would effectively smother the Ukrainian language by removing any incentive for millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians to learn and speak it. They also say it would bring Ukraine back into the Russian orbit and torpedo its efforts to forge closer ties with the European Union.
Lawmakers loyal to President Viktor Yanukovych, who draws his support from the Russian-speaking east and south, rushed the bill through Parliament on Tuesday night, without giving the opposition much chance to oppose it in a debate.
Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn who was absent during the vote, announced his resignation Wednesday, calling the vote illegitimate, despite the fact that his own party voted for it. Seven national lawmakers announced a hunger strike.
"I have been fooled, Ukraine has been fooled, the people have been fooled," Lytvyn told lawmakers. His spokesman would not comment on why his party supported the bill.
About 2,000 protesters, some clad in traditional embroidered shirts, staged an angry protest against the bill outside a government building in the center of Kiev on Wednesday, where Yanukovych was to hold an annual news conference. Black-clad riot police with shields and helmets moved in after the activists tried to block the entrance to the building.
Protesters hurled bottles of water and sticks at the police and both sides used pepper-spray against each other. Ambulances rushed to the scene to treat protesters and police who were injured in the clashes. Vitali Klitschko, the WBC heavyweight champion and also an opposition leader, was injured and had blood streaming from his hand. Yanukovych's news conference was postponed until further notice.
The president has said he has not decided whether to approve or veto the bill, but Lytvyn's resignation was likely to delay that process because it cannot be submitted to the president without the speaker's signature.
Yanukovych urged lawmakers to work out their differences, but he said that if a compromise is not found and the crisis continues, he may move forward a parliamentary election now planned in Ukraine on Oct. 28.
Yanukovych's critics accuse him of using the contentious language issue to win back support from his Russian-speaking constituency ahead of the October election as his approval ratings slide amid economic hardships. They also claim the president is using the controversy to divert attention from the politically tainted imprisonment of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko and other top opposition leaders, which has drawn a storm of anger from the West.
"This is about the country, this is about each of us ... about the Constitution, the language," said opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk while urging Ukrainians to protest the bill.
On Tuesday, the Strasbourg Court of Human rights ruled that Yuri Lutsenko — a former Interior Minister in Tymoshenko's Cabinet, who has been sentenced to four years in prison on charges of abuse of office — had been detained arbitrarily. The ruling was a further blow to Yanukovych — already stung by a boycott by top EU officials of the Euro 2012 football championships that Ukraine just co-hosted.
An earlier debate in parliament about the Russian-language bill caused a brawl between lawmakers that left one legislator hospitalized.