KYIV -- Dozens of activists, opposition politicians and lawmakers have rallied near the building of Ukraine's Constitutional Court as it debated a controverisal language law that has been criticized for restricting access to minority languages.
Demonstrators on July 9 held posters supporting the law with slogans such as "Does the Constitutional Court want to kill the state language?' and "Ukrainian -- the only state language!"
The Constitutional Court began debating the legislation's constitutionality on July 8 at the request of 51 lawmakers, mainly from the pro-Russia Opposition Bloc.
The lawmakers claim that the law's provisions "discriminate Russian-speaking citizens on the basis of language."
The legislation, signed by former President Petro Poroshenko just days before he left office following his electoral defeat to rival Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year, declares that Ukrainian is "the only official state language" in the country.
It followed previous legislation, signed by Poroshenko in September 2017, that made Ukrainian the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade on. The bill did not outlaw instruction in other languages, allowing students to learn their native languages as a separate subject.
In December, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of constitutional experts criticized the law and specifically took issue with what it sees as an extremely short transition period for the converting of Russian-language schools into Ukrainian-language institutions.
The commission also said it considers quotas for minority languages in radio and TV programs to be unbalanced.
"To avoid the language issue becoming a source of interethnic tensions within Ukraine, it is of crucial importance to achieve an appropriate balance in its language policy," the commission said. "The authorities have so far failed to do so."
Mykola Knyazhytskiy, one of the authors of the law and now a member of the European Solidarity party, joined the picketers saying he was ashamed that the Ukrainian language has come under fire for being entrenched as the state's official language.
"Imagine that in Poland, Hungary, Israel, France, the Constitutional Court would initiate proceedings on whether the state language should be used or not used in some regions. Obviously, it's hard to imagine," he said.
Tensions With Moscow
Tensions with Russia have run high in the former Soviet republic following Moscow's seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed some 13,200 people.
Some native Russian speakers in Ukraine claim Kyiv is deliberately curtailing the use of the Russian language. The Kremlin has also assailed the language laws.
Ukrainian speakers argue that the prominence of Russia is a legacy of the Soviet era that undermines Ukraine's identity and cite efforts to suppress the Ukrainian language during communist times.
"It is the last chance for pro-Russian politicians to squeeze into the structures of power which would give Russia more chances to divide Ukraine using language issues," Ihor Miroshnychenko, a lawmaker from the All-Ukrainian Svoboda (Liberty) Union party, who was among the picketers on July 9 told RFE/RL.
The law was also criticized by other ethnic minorities in Ukraine, such as Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, and other sizeable ethnic groups residing in today's Ukraine for centuries.
Hungary has been blocking NATO initiatives aimed at building closer ties with Ukraine. In May, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said he hoped that the issue of Ukraine's laws on education and languages will be resolved, paving the way for "better understanding."