By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Opposition politicians walked out of Ukraine's parliament in protest on Monday after warning that a law making Russian the official language in parts of the former Soviet republic would set citizens at each other's throats.
President Viktor Yanukovich's Party of the Regions rushed the bill through parliament earlier this month in what opponents saw as an attempt to rally public support in Russian-speaking regions ahead of an October parliamentary election.
The move led to street protests in the capital Kiev and brawls in parliament. The chamber went into recess until September, leaving the bill in limbo, but last week parliament said it would reconvene for an extra session on Monday.
Arseny Yatseniuk, leader of the opposition Front of Change party, described the bill as a "crime against Ukraine and the Ukrainian state" during the special session on Monday.
"We regard this as an anti-constitutional maneuver - it does not exist for us as a law," he said.
Ivan Zayats, a deputy of Our Ukraine, another opposition party, said: "This law will set Ukrainians of the left bank against the right, north against south."
Opposition lawmakers then left the special sitting in protest, before parliament - dominated by the Party of the Regions - voted against any changes to the bill, which has passed its second and final reading.
The way is now clear for parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn to send the bill to Yanukovich for his final signature. Lytvyn won a vote of confidence from parliament on Monday despite having formally resigned over the language row.
Yanukovich has not yet expressed his view on the bill, but his popularity would take a hard knock in his eastern Ukraine power base if he failed to sign it into law.
About 1,000 opposition protesters attempted to rally near parliament on Monday but were barred from getting close to the main building.
While Ukrainian is the only state language, the bill would make Russian an official regional language in predominantly Russian-speaking areas in the industrialized east and southern regions such as Crimea where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based.
Opponents of the bill, who regard the Ukrainian language as a touchstone of sovereignty and independence from Russia, say it will mean that knowledge and usage of Ukrainian will die out in those areas.
Passions remain high, however, and the law is likely to be a high-profile issue in the October 28 election when Yanukovich's Party of the Regions will have to work hard to maintain its majority after unpopular government policies on pensions, taxation and the cost of home utilities.
With former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko still in jail on a charge of abuse of office, Yatseniuk, whose party has united with her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, has effectively become head of the opposition.
(Additional reporting by Natalya Zinets; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Pravin Char)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp