Giving Russian language special status is war against Ukraine

Cultural figures and celebrities on Friday slammed efforts to grant Russian language special status in this ex-Soviet republic, calling it an act of war against the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian language. Artists, writers, politicians and scientists, meeting for a round-table discussion in Kiev , condemned recent decisions by several regional councils to have Russian declared a regional language, allowing its use in official business. The overwhelmingly Russian-speaking region of Donetsk on Thursday became the fourth area to take such a move.

"Today they announced a war, and we must react accordingly," movie director Yuriy Illenko said. President Viktor Yushchenko's administration has said granting Russian special status contradicts the constitution which declares Ukrainian the only state language and his office has vowed to challenge the decisions in the two eastern regions, an eastern city and the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

The language issue has become one of the most sensitive in Ukraine , where Russian dominated during Soviet times and today many still consider it their native language, particularly in the east and south. In western regions, Ukrainian dominates and nationalists see protecting the language as a way to prevent meddling from Moscow . "Today we have a direct threat to the Ukrainian nation and Ukrainian state system," said lawmaker Ivan Zayeyts.

Yushchenko's legal adviser Mykola Poludyony said the councils have are no legal authority to make such decisions. Council officials say their decision is based on a European charter, which was ratified by the Ukrainian parliament in 2003, that protects regional and minority languages. Critics, however, say Russian should not be considered a minority language and does not need special protection.

"Russian isn't a language that is disappearing," Poludyony said. The Party of the Regions, the pro-Moscow opposition party that won the most votes in last month's parliamentary election, campaigned on a promise to make Russian a second state language. Declaring Russian a regional language is a lesser move than trying to have it declared a second state language, but it could open the door to those efforts.

The round table participants proposed creating a new organization dedicated to protecting the Ukrainian language. They called on officials and Ukrainian society to support their initiative. "I was walking and listening how Kiev sounds ... I heard not a single Ukrainian word," said Illenko, urging Ukrainians to use the decision of regional councils to unite around national interests and promote Ukrainian, reports the AP.