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The law has sparked fistfights in parliament as well as demonstrations and hunger strikes.
Ukraine elevated the status of the Russian language on Wednesday, as President Viktor F. Yanukovich signed a law which will allow Russian to be used by public servants in parliament and courts, as well as in television broadcasts.
The legislation retains Ukrainian as the official state language, but allows both public servants and citizens to file Russian-language documents at government bodies, courts, and other state institutions in areas of the country where more than 10 percent of residents are Russian, the Associated Press reported.
Russian is widely spoken in several regions in Ukraine, including Kiev and Crimea, where Yanukovich is currently vacationing, UPI reported.
The law, which critics say is a move by Yanukovitch (a native Russian speaker himself) to garner votes from his Russian-speaking supporters, has sparked fistfights in parliament as well as demonstrations and hunger strikes in the streets, the Los Angeles Times reported.
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"Yanukovich has managed to do everything that the Russian emperors and the Soviet general secretaries could not do," said opposition political strategist Oleg Medvedev, according to Reuters. "He has passed a death sentence on the Ukrainian language."
In an attempt to assuage critics, Yanukovich has also set up a council to promote the use of Ukrainian, a group of linguistics experts and high-profile figures who would devise strategies to improve the legislation on the use of both languages, Agence France Presse reported.
The linguistic tensions in Ukraine date back to the Soviet era, and divide the country into "the Kremlin-friendly Russian-speaking east and the fervently nationalistic Ukrainian-speaking west," AFP explains.
Russian was removed as an official language in Ukraine after the country launched a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and declared its independence in 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported.