Bare-knuckle brawling lost its place as a political metaphor when an actual fistfight broke out in the parliament building. Members of the left-wing minority, which after five years in power lost the legislative leadership to a center-right coalition last December, tried to block access to the chamber on February 8. The protestors were shoved aside in a nasty fight that was a new low even for Ukraine’s rough-hewn Rada.

The fractious left is faring poorly under the strain of minority status. The left first staged a boycott of plenary sessions, but the majority was able to maintain a quorum, confirm the president’s choice for prime minister, and elect a speaker. With the boycott a failure, members switched to other protest tactics. Some tried a hunger strike–but not the Communists, the largest left-wing party. The Socialists refused to join the effort to keep the majority from entering the Chamber. When the number of Progressive Socialists fell below the minimum needed for recognition as a parliamentary faction, no other left-wing member signed up to protect the group from dissolution. There is grumbling in the Communist rank and file about the passivity of party leader Petro Symonenko.

A national referendum on April 16 is to consider whether to dissolve the parliament and elect a new one. The consolidation of right-wing control in the Rada, which is the only body in Ukraine’s unicameral legislature, may lead President Kuchma to try to pull that question off the ballot….

President Leonid Kuchma wants to strengthen teaching and use of the Ukrainian language. He proposes to monitor language use in government, to test the language proficiency of public officials, to require TV and radio to offer some programming in Ukrainian, and to enforce current law making Ukrainian mandatory, and other languages optional, as a language of instruction in public schools.

Russia’s reaction was swift and apoplectic. The Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of violating the rights of the “Russian-speaking population.” The new Kremlin Plenipotentiary for Human Rights called Kuchma’s action a “blatant and gross violation of civilized norms of conduct among peoples, a violation of fundamental human rights, and an unparalleled linguistic discrimination on a mass scale.”

The Russian protest deliberately muddles the Russian population of Ukraine, about 23 percent of country, with a Russian-speaking population, which is probably a majority. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry replied to the Russian protest that Ukraine is perfectly entitled to ensure “the right of its citizens to use their own language and to revitalize … the national identity, [nearly] eradicated during the decades of forced Russification.” The Ministry’s statement noted there are 2,400 state-supported Russian-language schools in the country, attended by over 30 percent of the national student body at middle and higher levels. Ukrainians in Russia–and there are millions of them–get no such consideration.