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Avoiding Ukraine’s language minefields

06.03.14 | Halya Coynash

2012 protest in the Crimea against the controversial language policy law.  The banner reads: The Ukrainian Language is our independence

Ukraine’s new parliamentary majority trod on its first mine just a day after the change in leadership.  Most gallingly, it was one easily avoided.  Assertions from Moscow that Russian-speakers were being discriminated against, or even persecuted, were standard and foreseeable.  So was the anxiety in predominantly Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine about a new leadership painted by the widely available Russian media as “fascist”, “nationalist” and anti-Russian. 

This all demanded caution and sensitivity.  Instead, on Feb 23 a slim majority (238) voted to revoke the 2012 language policy law. This law purported to protect the rights of any minority ethnic group comprising 10% of the population of a region, but in fact simply allowed Russian to become the main language in a number of regions of the country.  The news that the highly contentious law had been revoked was a gift to the Kremlin which took no time in trumpeting to the world that Ukraine had “declared war on the Russian language”.  Perusal of the western media shows that some journalists were conned.

Acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has said he will veto the Feb 23 bill, so in fact nothing has changed.  This, of course, is ignored by the Russian propaganda machine, as is the overwhelming opposition to the 2012 law.  Protest was expressed at the time and has been repeated in response to the Kremlin’s claims that it is “protecting the interests of its nationals and Russian-speakers though its invasion of the Crimea.  Human rights groups and the Human Rights Ombudsperson Valeria Lutkovska have stated publicly that they have received no complaints about infringements of Russian-speakers’ rights.

Beyond the rhetoric

The situation with language in Ukraine is highly specific, as has been recognized by the OSCE, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and Secretariat of the Charter of Regional and Minority Languages. 

Ukrainian is the sole official state language while the Constitution clearly guarantees “the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities”.  Both for historical reasons, and due to economic factors, with Ukrainian language publishing, the media and film industry unable to compete with bigger Russian firms, t is the Ukrainian language which has always been in a weaker position.  This is true even in the predominantly Ukrainian speaking West of the country.  In Kharkiv it can be difficult to find newspapers in Ukrainian, and in the Crimea Russian is the main language of communication. 

What the propaganda also ignores is the remarkable level of linguistic tolerance in the country.  While many do not speak Ukrainian in the Crimea, they are unlikely to genuinely not understand it.  Russian can be used anywhere and it is quite common on TV talk shows for people to be asked questions in one language and answer in the other.  Back in 2011 persistent attempts by the Russian media and Ukraine’s then ruling Party of the Regions to inculcate an image of western Ukrainians as rabid anti-Russian nationalists prompted a delightful experiment in Lviv. Two young people were filmed walking up to passers-by and asking how to get to the Russian Orthodox Church.  Almost all those approached immediately changed into Russian to explain, while one or two positively changed direction to show these supposed Russian tourists the way.

Political games

In 2012, with dwindling popularity and parliamentary elections approaching, the president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions pulled out “the language card”, that is, the contentious issue of the status of the Russian language.  This “issue” is consistently far down the list of people’s concerns in public opinion polls, but is often used in Ukraine to distract the electorate from economic and other problems.

With no chance of getting the constitutional majority needed to make Russian a second state language, the ruling majority pushed through a law which simply bypassed the Constitution.  The language policy law, normally known by its Party of the Regions authors, Serhiy Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnichenko, pretended to protect “regional languages”, while in fact simply strengthening the role of the Russian language.  The bill prompted mass protests throughout the country and was condemned by a huge number of national minorities, religious leaders, human rights groups, intellectuals, as well as receiving damning assessments from all those bodies responsible for assessing legislative initiatives.  A statementfrom the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine [VAAD] said that  “the draft law poses a threat to Ukrainian society since it disregards the State status of the Ukrainian language, does not protect minority languages at risk and arouses dissent and tension in Ukrainian society”.

Kolesnichenko and Kivalov claimed that the law was in keeping with the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages and had received a favourable Council of Europe’s Venice Commission assessment.  It was in fact criticized by the latter, and called deeply divisive by Knut Vollebaek, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. He expressed concern that “the disproportionate favouring 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, ”

The mass protests prompted repressive measures with the courts often imposing unwarranted court bans which were then enforced, often with gratuitous violence, by Berkut riot police.

The minorities whose languages really are at risk have not been protected by the bill and were never intended to benefit.  The bill was aimed quite simply at disregarding the Constitution and enabling people in regions of the country where 10% or more of the population speak Russian to effectively ignore the Ukrainian language altogether. 

Nobody had prevented anyone from speaking Russian before or in fact infringed the rights of Russian speakers in any way.  Under Yanukovych’s presidency, it was actually Ukrainian-speaking schools which were increasingly axed in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Geopolitical manoeuvres

The MPs who voted to revoke the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law on Feb 23 were justified in objecting to the bill but reprehensibly oblivious to the likely fall-out and insensitive.  Russia has over recent years used any pretext or none to shout about discrimination or persecution of Russian-speakers.  They have even condemned Ukraine for supposed breach of the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, assuming – unfortunately rightly – that few will realize that Russia has yet to even sign this important document. 

It is worth noting that officials from the Charter’s Secretariat have acknowledged that countries in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, are in a specific situation.  While ethnic Russians may be a minority in Ukraine, the Russian language is not a minority language and in no way in need of protection.   Those languages in Ukraine which do need support – Crimean Tatar and Karaim, for example, still do not get it. 

It is inconceivable that those in the Kremlin, as well as the Russian media, are unaware of all of this.  The hysteria unleashed on Feb 23 and claims that Ukraine’s new leaders were waging war against the Russian language were part of a much more dangerous offensive.  The cynical attempts to justify Russia’s invasion of the Crimea as “protecting” Russian nationals and Russian speakers have been rejected by an unprecedented number of signatories to a petition, representatives of the Jewish community, and many others.  Just as Yanukovych’s attempt to divide the country on language grounds in 2012 largely failed, the Kremlin’s armed “protection” of another country’s sovereign territory has had a uniting effect.  Another myth about the great divide debunked.  

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