The Language Law: Creeping Russification?


  On August 13 the Odesa Local Council approved the decision to grant the Russian language local status by virtue of the Law “On the Fundamental Principles of the National Language Policy”, which took effect on August 10.  Then the local councils of the Odesa, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk and Kherson oblasts approved similar laws. All the councils corroborated their decision on the basis of data of the nationwide census conducted in 2001 according to which more than 10% of the respondents in the aforementioned regions claim that Russian is their native language.

What will be the social repercussions from the adoption of the language law?

What impact will this have on the ratings of the country’s main political forces?

Promises, promises, Dear Mr. President…

The commotion after President Viktor Yanukovych signed the law “On the Fundamental Principles of the National Language Policy” was a logical conclusion of the process of its drafting and adoption. Although it was clear that Yanukovych supported this law from the very start, he was reluctant to ink the legislative act until the very last moment.   

Accordingly, legitimize the signing of this law the president met with members of the Ukrainian intellectual class on August 7. In response to their demands that that the president veto the law, Yanukovych promised that he would propose amendments and the very next day put his signature to the document.

As a result, the interlocutors of the president became the next victims of manipulation by the ruling power, which forcibly pushed through the language law. Indeed, in two rounds of voting for the law in the Verkhovna Rada a number of legislative and regulatory norms were breeched and President Yanukovych legalized such violations using props in his dialog with the members of the intellectual class.

Moreover, there are serious doubts that the president will fulfill his promises to make amendments to the law. Indeed, on August 7 the head of state declared his intentions of submitting the corresponding amendments to the parliament in September. Then on August 14 he stated in Sevastopol that amendments to the law will be made only if necessary. This in essence means that the law will not be amended before the parliamentary elections in October.

Domino effect

The immediate reaction of a number of local councils to the language law taking effect came as no surprise to the majority of political analysts. It is glaringly obvious that the law was adopted to grant the Russian language regional status in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine so that the ruling Party of Regions can win the votes of local residents. As such, we can expect that soon this trend will spread to other oblasts and cities in these parts of Ukraine.

Furthermore, local councils will continue to exploit imperfect mechanisms written into the law, namely, passing decisions on the basis of the census that has been in effect for the past eleven years. The legitimacy of such documents is quite dubious as none of the local councils even tried to organize the collection of signatures of regional residents in favor of granting the Russian language regional status.

Accordingly, as was anticipated lawmakers assure that the law is aimed exclusively at raising the status of the Russian language. The situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) is a subliminal confirmation of this fact. Unlike other local bodies, the Supreme Council of Crimea tabled the decision on granting certain languages regional status until September.

Deputy Chair of the Crimean People’s Mejlis Refat Chubarov says this is motivated by the fact that the local parliament is not willing to grant the native Crimean-Tatar language regional status based on the results of a census for 11.4% of the residents of the Crimean peninsula.

Assistant Chief-of-staff of the Presidential Administration Hanna Herman said the possibility of raising the percentage barrier required to grant the language regional status from 10% to 20% or even 30%. If this comes into effect the Crimean-Tatar nation will lose its right to contend for the status of a regional language in Crimea and the Russian language will lose its competitiveness in the majority of region in Ukraine.

Clearly, such regionalization of the Russian language could have serious negative consequences in Ukrainian society. On the one hand, in conditions of legally fixed coexistence of the Ukrainian and Russian languages the latter will win thanks to the subjective preferences of many civil servants and objective market conditions.

In short, the Ukrainian language faces the threat of extinction not only in the television, mass media, advertising, publishing and movie production sectors, but also in local and state government administration.

On the other hand, given the serious regional differences in the usage of the Russian language the raising of its status in one part of the country could spark social conflicts on linguistic grounds. There is also a high probability that such discord will grow proportional to the heightening of the aforementioned trend of the squeezing out of the Ukrainian language.

Electoral fruits

Members of the Party of Regions hope to exploit the abovementioned threatening processes to increase their ratings. Raising the status of the Russian language is likely the only promise that the presidential team fulfilled over the two and a half years in power. However, at the moment the attitude of the people towards the law on the language policy remains unclear. First of all, the latest political ratings do not show an increase in the popularity of the Party of Regions. According to the data of the sociological group Rating, from May to July the party’s rating fell by 2%.

Secondly, research conducted by the Razumkov Center in June showed that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are well aware of the pre-election nature of the government’s language initiative. Indeed, 65.1% of the polled supported this fact, among which 52.6% live in the southern oblasts and 51.8% - in the eastern provinces.

Thirdly, based on the final results of polling the implementation of the language law may add some electoral points to the opposition parties that will give them a chance to consolidate their proponents around the idea of defending the Ukrainian language.

The impact of granting the Russian language regional status will become clear very soon. It is totally obvious that during the election campaign the majority of politicians running for a seat in parliament will actively exploit the language issue.


In closing, the process of granting the Russian language regional status by local councils in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine is a logical consequence of the adoption of the law “On the Principles of the National Language Policy”.

On the one hand, the Party of Regions is exploiting a number of councils that is has control over to increase its popularity among the Russian-speaking population, though its success in its efforts seems rather doubtful.

On the other hand, the implementation of the new language law may precipitate extremely negative trends that might pose a threat to the status of the Ukrainian language and the regional integration of Ukraine.


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