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You're reading: Playing with ambiguities

 On the one hand, according to the 2001 national census, 78% of the population of Ukraine consists of Ukrainians, and most of them (85%) claim Ukrainian as their native language. On the other hand, about 50% of Ukrainian citizens (the figure varies in different surveys) declare Russian to be their “language of convenience” (or “language of daily communication”). Many Ukrainians who speak Ukrainian at home are ashamed (or afraid, because of symbolic violence) to speak it in public. As a result, in most Ukrainian cities, even those with a Ukrainophone majority, the Ukrainian language is virtually unheard. The very notion of linguistic minority / majority in Ukraine becomes therefore ambiguous and susceptible to manipulations.

The Ukrainian Law on Languages (1989) and national Constitution (1996) contribute to the ambiguity than try to solve it. Both documents recognize Ukrainian as the sole “state language” whereas Russian is placed among other minority languages that can be legally used and protected by law alongside the “state language.” No legal mechanisms, to enforce effectively the use of the “state language” have ever been elaborated, however. This absence has resulted in a de-facto laissez-faire policy. The language law has been applied, like many other laws in Ukraine, arbitrarily, selectively, and in a highly opportunistic manner.

As a result, both Russophones and Ukrainophones are dissatisfied with the situation. Each side feels that the state is not “theirs” to the degree they would like it to be. The reason for such alienation is to be found, however, not in the lawless, corrupt and uncivil character of the state, but rather in the language(s) it imposed on its citizens – too much Ukrainian, from the point of view of Russophones, and (still) too much Russian, from the point of Ukrainophones. The latter, as the “titular nationality,” have some privileges de-jure and would like to assert them de-facto. The former, as the imperial majority in the past, still enjoy their dominant status de facto and would like to prevent the possible change of the postcolonial status-quo de-jure.

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