Ukraine region ban on Russian culture sparks controversy

Lviv (Ukraine) (AFP) –


The decision by a fiercely pro-Western region of Ukraine to ban Russian-language arts, from songs to books and films, prompted widespread condemnation on Thursday even as it remained unclear how it would be implemented.

Lawmakers in Lviv's regional parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed an open-ended moratorium on the public use in any form of Russian-language "cultural product".

The regional assembly said the moratorium would last until the end of Russia's "occupation" of Ukraine, referring to Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.

The move has prompted ridicule from Moscow and Western diplomats and even a member of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's ruling party.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists on Thursday that "we regret that officials in Ukraine are fighting a war on language too, and this is a war with their own people."

Oleksiy Goncharenko of Poroshenko's party wrote on Facebook that the deputies were apparently going to absurd lengths due to upcoming legislative and presidential elections.

"The closer the elections, the more absurdity," he said, stressing that Russian is used by many Ukrainian writers and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is currently on hunger strike in a Russian penal colony.

- 'Just plain dumb' -

Canadian and British ambassadors to Ukraine also strongly criticised the move.

The terms of the Lviv region's ban are "narrow-minded, discriminatory and #justplaindumb," Canadian Ambassador Roman Waschuk wrote on Twitter.

"C'mon Lviv (region), you?re better than this," British Ambassador Judith Gough wrote, adding the hashtags #tolerance and #diversity.

Ukraine already has a nationwide ban on films judged to glorify Russia's military. It has imposed entry bans on Russian pop stars who have backed the annexation of Crimea and travelled there directly from Russia.

The regional body that voted for the ban is dominated by the party of President Poroshenko and the pro-Western Samopomich party. But it also has members of the Svoboda nationalist party including the bill's author, a former national parliament deputy speaker.

The Soviet Union occupied western Ukraine at the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and anti-Russian sentiments have traditionally been very strong there.

Lviv is a popular tourist destination with its Central European-style architecture and cafe culture. The region borders Poland in the European Union.

The Ukrainian language is already used much more than Russian in the region, but many Ukrainians use both languages in daily life.

A copy of the bill published on the parliament's website says that it aims to "protect the Ukrainian information space from the hybrid influences of the aggressor state and overcome the consequences of prolonged linguistic Russification".

The decision will affect cafes, restaurants and any public transport playing Russian-language music, two deputies from Svoboda nationalist party told AFP on Thursday, on condition of anonymity.

It will also affect books, films and public readings, they said.

But the decision, whose wording was drawn up by Svoboda party, was "advisory in nature" and "does not specify any time limits or the mechanism of implementation and punishment," they added.

Ties between Kiev and its former master Moscow were shredded after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported a separatist uprising in east Ukraine, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russia of funnelling troops and arms across the border, but Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.