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Vigilantes fight to preserve laws, Ukraine's identity

Lviv's self-appointed defenders of Ukrainian culture are the most visible participants in a battle to shape not only Ukraine's laws but also its identity.

They make the rounds of Lviv's bars and bookstores, volunteers all, of middle age or more. In their worn slacks and knit shirts, they are not an intimidating lot. Yet when they confront Lyudmila Pridachenko, the bookstore manager fairly shakes.

Pridachenko's store has too many Russian books, the activists scold. She is breaking tax laws, they warn. She is destroying Ukrainian culture.

"We're just trying to make a living here," Pridachenko protests. "What gives you the right?"

Lviv's advocates of "Ukrainization" are fighting not just for linguistic pride, they say. They are fighting for national survival.

Nearly a decade since the Soviet Union collapsed, some Ukrainians warn that Russia is trying to reclaim Ukraine. The handwriting is on the wall, they say, and it's in Russian.

These Ukrainians allege that Russia is using disputes over trade, energy transfers, military bases and citizenship to weaken the nation of 50-million people. They say Russia wants Ukraine to follow neighboring Belarus into a union that would obliterate its sovereignty.

Language forms the current battlefront. The constitution declares Ukrainian the nation's official language, but Russian remains favored in everyday life.

To remedy that, some in government propose testing state officials and basing their assignments on their knowledge of Ukrainian. More schoolchildren would be taught Ukrainian. Theaters would be "de-Russified" by featuring movies and plays in Ukrainian, not Russian. Taxes would be raised drastically on imported Russian publications and quotas placed on Russian broadcast media.

"No one is trying to kill off Russian language or Russian culture," said Ivan Drach, a leader of the Ukrainization movement and chairman of the federal government's Committee for Information Policy. "I don't see any way that would be possible even.

"The war for the language is part of an unending war to hold on to our spirituality and our culture," Drach said. "Language is a component to unite society."

Critics, though, say measures proposed by Drach and others are having the opposite effect.

The debate splits Ukraine along geographical lines. It also raises questions about minority rights, even about what constitutes a minority when only 20 percent of Ukrainian residents are ethnic Russians but most of the country speaks Russian everyday.

Many Ukrainians seem inclined to leave things as they are. They pride themselves on being tolerant. ("Ukrainians are the most peaceful people in the world," is something one hears a lot.) They say that the closeness of the two Slavic languages allows most Russian speakers to understand enough Ukrainian to get by.

Even those nostalgic about the Soviet Union and jealous of Russia's relative economic success are wary of getting too close to a country that has been beset by ethnic strife and violence, including two wars in Chechnya.

The activists harbor deep distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin, pointing to his past in the Soviet-era KGB and his comments about restoring Russian greatness and power. They are well-versed in Russia's history of imperialism in Ukraine and eager to share it with visitors.

"There are those in Russia who wish to create a new Russian empire," said Vadim Skuratovsky, a historian and cultural critic in Kiev. "They think Ukraine is theirs."

The fact is, Ukraine's westward glances unnerve Moscow. Ukraine's economic ties to Poland are one thing; but its friendly relations with NATO raise Moscow's blood pressure.

Like the czars before them, the Soviets tried to stamp out Ukrainian nationalism. Sometimes they employed unspeakable terror, sometimes simple harassment. They had an easier time of it in eastern Ukraine, helped along by the migration east of ethnic Russians.

The west, though, was always defiant. Even at the height of Soviet oppression, some in the west refused to learn Russian. During perestroika in the late 1980s and in the early days of independence after 1991, speaking Ukrainian was a political statement and a badge of honor.

It remains so for Vladimir Pruniv and the six men and women who make up his cultural patrol.

For those businesses that fail to change their ways, the groups have red bumper stickers to plaster on windows. The stickers sport the skull and crossbones and read: "Beware: Moscow poison."