VIENNA (Reuters) - Ukraine's move to restore Russian as the language for official business and schools in some regions risks polarizing the country, the head of minorities' rights at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on Thursday.
OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, urged a compromise to defuse tensions over a bill that provoked protests in Ukraine this month and is now in limbo as President Viktor Yanukovich has not said whether he will sign it into law.
Wrapping up a visit to Ukraine, Vollebaek called the draft bill "deeply divisive" and said authorities should open a dialogue with critics.
"The disproportionate favoring of the Russian language, while also removing most incentives for learning or using Ukrainian in large parts of the country, could potentially undermine Ukraine's very cohesion," he said in a statement.
He also expressed concern at what he called the parliamentary majority's refusal to consider any of the more than 2,000 amendments put forward on the measure.
"In the present pre-election climate, tensions surrounding the language law could easily escalate," Vollebaek said, referring to parliamentary elections in October.
"I therefore call on all parties to engage in a substantive dialogue on the issues raised by the law with a view to finding a suitable compromise."
One member of parliament who drafted the law and is a member of Yanukovich's Party of the Regions snubbed the call.
"Knut Vollebaek's negative reaction shows that many European politicians are interested in destabilizing the situation in Ukraine," Interfax news agency quoted Vadym Kolesnichenko as saying.
Many Russian speakers believe the legislation protects against Western encroachment including the introduction of mandatory Ukrainian dubbing of films by the government of previous president Viktor Yushchenko.
For its opponents it is a blow to the fragile sovereignty of a country long divided between regional powers and persecuted by Moscow's tsars and its Communist leaders.
According to a 2001 census, there were 8.3 million Russians in Ukraine but Prime Minister Mykola Azarov raised eyebrows last month when he said there were 20 million ethnic Russians in the nation of 46 million.
Azarov is an ethnic Russian who speaks Ukrainian, a language that has gained ground since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
(Reporting by Michael Shields in Vienna; Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev; Editing by Louise Ireland)