Pro-Ukrainain language supporters clashed with police on Aug. 20 at the Kharkiv City Council as it voted to grant official status to Russian as a regional language. A handful of similar clashes have erupted after President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions spearheaded adoption of legislation that could boost usage of Russian, in turn undermining the state language, Ukrainian.
With its new law on state language policy, the pro-presidential Party of Regions (PR) has cloaked a radical effort to redefine the basis of Ukrainian statehood and society under the guise of human-rights concerns.
Although it has so far attracted little attention in the West, the bill – which grants official status to “regional languages,” especially Russian – is a key example of a familiar pattern in the context of recent battles around Russia’s former Soviet periphery.
The grievances proclaimed by the “defenders of Russian culture” in Ukraine are strikingly similar to those expressed by similar groups in places from Estonia and Latvia to Moldova and even Central Asia. Not surprisingly, they share a common historical origin – and a common “rodina” from which to draw inspiration – to say nothing of financial or organizational resources.
As the Russian state grew stronger after Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, and especially as its fears of “contamination” grew after Georgia’s Rose and Ukraine’s Orange Revolutions, it began to intervene more forcefully on behalf of its “countrymen” in the so-called near abroad. For example, Russia has granted citizenship to residents Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, later using this as a pretext for military intervention on behalf of its “citizens.”
Certainly, Ukraine is no Russian puppet.
Furthermore, political movements such as the youth group Nashi have harassed Estonia’s diplomats and vandalized its websites, while “soft-power” organizations like Russkiy Mir (Russian World) actively work to promote cultural and linguistic ties to the homeland.
Certainly, Ukraine is no Russian puppet. Though cooperation between the two countries has deepened considerably under President Viktor Yanukovych, the divergent interests of pro-presidential Ukrainian elites from those of their Russian counterparts provide a natural limit to cooperation in the long term.
The short term is, however, a different story; as a weaker economy and a stronger political opposition have endangered the Party of Regions’ electoral prospects, the language issue has become the perfect way to distract voters while rewarding the pro-Russian activists in the party’s base.
During the campaign for the language law, its proponents have perfected the art of political distraction by portraying themselves as the victims of human-rights abuses. For example, Simferopol activist Serhiy Shuvaynykov told the BBC’s Ukrainian Service that Russian-speakers’ language rights are being violated “everywhere,” as they are “taunted with Ukrainian on local television, cinemas, billboards, and road signs.”
Similarly, the law itself is defended primarily in human-rights terms. Its authors, Regions deputies Vadym Kolesnichenko and Serhiy Kivalov, have consistently argued that the legislation is merely a means of implementing Ukraine’s commitments under the European Charter on Minority Languages. Even after the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission – at Ukraine’s request – released an opinion deeming the draft law “unnecessary” as it “diminish[es] the integrative force” of
Ukrainian, Kivalov valiantly sought to emphasize points of mutual agreement, praising the Commission for “finally recogniz[ing] the well-known fact” of the historical basis for Russian in Ukraine.
In reality, Ukraine has done quite well in terms of accepting and meeting its obligations to minority language communities. Although the law’s proponents trumpet the benefits of the legislation for Hungarian- and Romanian-speaking populations, the concerns of these groups have been effectively addressed through bilateral and regional agreements. And while the linguistic rights of the Crimean Tatars are still at risk, this threat comes not from Ukrainian but from Russian, the dominant government language in the Crimean autonomous republic.
The faulty logic of groups like Russkoyazychnaya Ukraina [Russian-Speaking Ukraine] is best revealed with reference to the case of Ireland. There, Irish is the sole “language of state,” a status specifically not granted to English – the native tongue of 97 percent of the country’s population. And despite eight decades of Irish-language official publications, road signs, television stations, etc., the
English-speaking majority has in no way been marginalized. English continues to be the language of Ireland’s culture, economy, and society. Linguistic survival, then, cannot be the real concern of the pro-Russian language camp in Ukraine.
Just as the Irish did after independence, the voters of Ukraine made the democratic decision to choose a different official language for their state. This decision was made with full provision and consideration for the rights of linguistic minorities, with Russian given special prominence.
By ignoring the legal and practical reality of the situation of Russian in Ukraine, the pro-Russian language movement in Ukraine has fatally weakened its own argument. The fact that Ukrainian is the state language in no way “endangers” the viability of the Russian-speaking community.
Certainly, there have been hiccups along the way, but both major language communities continue to be in vibrant health two decades after independence. In seeking a change to this status quo, the Party of Regions clearly wants something different. By removing Ukrainian from its position at the local level, the law is virtually guaranteed to promote Russian monolingualism in the south and east of the country.
For clarity’s sake, the Party of Regions should simply admit it.
Emmet Tuohy is a researcher with the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence Studies.