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Russia, West Clash During UN Session On Ukraine's Language Law


Then-President Petro Poroshenko during the signing of the language law on May 15
Then-President Petro Poroshenko during the signing of the language law on May 15

A United Nations Security Council meeting over Kyiv's move to declare Ukrainian the national language of Ukraine has turned into a war of words between Moscow and the West.

Russia denounced the language law during the July 16 meeting, saying Ukraine's "struggle for national identity should not violate the rights of the Russian-speaking minority," while the West used the session to air a series of grievances against Moscow.

"We are not speaking out against the Ukrainian [language]," Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, told the Security Council. "We want to defend Russians.

Meanwhile, the United States, Britain, and France used the session to demand an end to the "occupation" of Crimea by Moscow and a ceasing of efforts to restrict minority rights on the peninsula, which was unilaterally seized and annexed by Russia in 2014.

"Russia must end its occupation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula," U.S. diplomat Rodney Hunter said.

"Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine and our sanctions against Russia for its aggression in eastern Ukraine will remain in place until Russia fully implements the Minsk agreements," he added, citing agreements signed in 2015 in the Belarusian capital designed to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The Western powers also demanded that "justice be served" on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 that killed all 298 aboard in a region controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In addition, the United States and its allies demanded the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors and their vessel detained in December 2018 by Russian forces during a naval incident off the coast of Crimea.

The UN session had been called to discuss a law put into force by Kyiv on July 16 to declare Ukrainian "the only official state language in Ukraine," a move that expands quotas for Ukrainian-language content on broadcast media and in print.

It says that "attempts" to introduce other languages as the state language would be considered efforts to "forcibly change the constitutional order."

It introduces mandatory language quotas for state and private television broadcasts and says at least half of the text in printed media must be in Ukrainian.

Public posts that require fluency in Ukrainian include the presidency, the position of parliament speaker, as well as all lawmakers, ministers, the head of the state Security Service, the prosecutor-general, the chief of the Ukrainian National Bank, and local council members.

Ukrainian becomes mandatory in all official documents, court records, elections and referendums, international treaties, and labor agreements.

The law says language rules would not apply to private conversations or religious rituals.

Ukrainian is the native language of some 67 percent of Ukraine's population of almost 45 million, while Russian is the native language of almost 30 percent. Russian is spoken mostly in urban areas. Almost 3 percent of Ukraine's inhabitants are native speakers of other languages.

Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine claim Kyiv is deliberately curtailing the use of the Russian language.

Russia had called for "urgent consultations" on the law to be held in the Security Council, and Russia's mission to the Council of Europe has also called on the rights body to react to the new piece of legislation.

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko endorsed the language law two months ago before leaving office.

Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was inaugurated on May 20, has criticized the law as a set of "prohibitions and punishments" that will complicate bureaucratic procedures and "increase the number of officials instead of reducing them."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, AP, and AFP
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