Riot police deployed tear gas and batons in Ukraine on Wednesday against a demonstration protesting a new law that boosts the status of the Russian language inside the former Soviet country.
Hundreds of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest against the law, which opposition deputies warn could divide the country in two and thrust half of it into the arms of neighboring Russia.
The law, adopted amid fistfights in parliament late on Tuesday, gives Russian the status of a regional language, approving its use in courts, schools and other government institutions in the country’s Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions. Ukrainian remains the country’s only official federal language.
The law has heightened divisions between those hoping to strengthen Ukraine’s independent post-Soviet identity and those seeking to maintain close links with Russia, a fracture that has haunted the country since the Orange Revolution in 2004.
The Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, approved the law in a second and final reading late on Tuesday after opposition deputies rushed the podium in a wild melee and criticized the vote, saying it was marred by procedural violations.
Ukrainian Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn tendered his resignation on Wednesday morning.
Riot police fired teargas and wielded batons as between 500 and 700 protesters gathered outside a central building where the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was scheduled to hold a live televised press conference, which he was forced to cancel.
Opposition deputies described the bill as a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Many fear that the upgraded status will discourage the millions of Russian speakers inside the country from learning Ukrainian, prolonging its dependence on Russia. About 15 deputies and activists have gone on hunger strike.
The bill’s supporters argue it protects the rights of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, most of them in the country’s east, Yanukovych’s electoral base.