Ukraine’s fighting words

When U.S. President John F. Kennedy turned 45, Marilyn Monroe performed her infamous rendition of "happy birthday" in Madison Square Garden. When Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 58, he received an erotic calendar from young journalists in Moscow. But when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned 62 yesterday, he received…well, a fake Belarusian visa and a ...

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages

When U.S. President John F. Kennedy turned 45, Marilyn Monroe performed her infamous rendition of "happy birthday" in Madison Square Garden. When Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 58, he received an erotic calendar from young journalists in Moscow. But when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned 62 yesterday, he received...well, a fake Belarusian visa and a book on the "Basics of Ukrainophobia:" gifts from angry activists to ridicule his Belarusian roots and party's most recent legislation.

No doubt, his celebration's been a little less sultry and lot more politically heated.  Widespread discontent over the recent "language bill," passed last Monday, July 3, has fueled protests throughout Ukraine and exaggerated tensions between Ukraine's Russian-speaking East and Ukrainian-speaking West. Approved by 248 of the 364 legislators present for the vote, the bill officially recognizes "regional" languages where they're spoken by at least ten percent of the population and permits their official use of in legal discourse, business, and education.

Yanukovych, who grew up in the Russian speaking Donetsk Oblast and represents the pro-Russian Part of the Regions, pledged to make Russian a second official language during his campaign, but the vote was still a shock for many Ukrainians. In response to what's been deemed "a lightning vote," the speaker of Ukraine's parliament and leader of the opposition People's Party -- Volodymyr Lytvyn - resigned.  Rather than accept the resignation of its leader, parliament voted Friday to adjourn for the summer and delay discussion of the bill.

When U.S. President John F. Kennedy turned 45, Marilyn Monroe performed her infamous rendition of "happy birthday" in Madison Square Garden. When Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 58, he received an erotic calendar from young journalists in Moscow. But when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned 62 yesterday, he received…well, a fake Belarusian visa and a book on the "Basics of Ukrainophobia:" gifts from angry activists to ridicule his Belarusian roots and party’s most recent legislation.

No doubt, his celebration’s been a little less sultry and lot more politically heated.  Widespread discontent over the recent "language bill," passed last Monday, July 3, has fueled protests throughout Ukraine and exaggerated tensions between Ukraine’s Russian-speaking East and Ukrainian-speaking West. Approved by 248 of the 364 legislators present for the vote, the bill officially recognizes "regional" languages where they’re spoken by at least ten percent of the population and permits their official use of in legal discourse, business, and education.

Yanukovych, who grew up in the Russian speaking Donetsk Oblast and represents the pro-Russian Part of the Regions, pledged to make Russian a second official language during his campaign, but the vote was still a shock for many Ukrainians. In response to what’s been deemed "a lightning vote," the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament and leader of the opposition People’s Party — Volodymyr Lytvyn – resigned.  Rather than accept the resignation of its leader, parliament voted Friday to adjourn for the summer and delay discussion of the bill.

Citing article Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution which requires that the state "ensure comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine," critics charge that the bill is a blatant attempt to undermine Ukraine’s language and sovereignty in favor of Russia – an all too familiar criticism for Yanukovych who’s been ridiculed as the Kremlin’s pawn in the past.

While the jury’s still out on the future of the bill, it seems like Yanukovych may need to work on his birthday plans. Last year, he simply asked for  "hard workers."  

Hillary Hurd is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

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