You can read "Language Issue Being Stirred Up Again in Ukraine? Part 1" here.

The place of the Russian language in Ukraine is a hot-button issue that had been largely put aside in the wake of Russia’s invasion – but reminders of it have come recently, including scandals involving a Ukrainian taxi driver who declined to use Ukrainian with a customer and with Ukrainian-language professor Iryna Farion – who said that Russian-speaking Ukrainian military service people weren’t Ukrainians.

Dismissed Ukrainian language professor and former lawmaker Iryna Farion on April 5, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Ukraine’s state language is Ukrainian. But after centuries of Russification and repression against the Ukrainian population by the Russian empire and the Soviet system, many, if not the majority, of Ukrainians tend to speak Russian – though most are fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian or speak a kind of informal mix of the two known called “Surzhyk.”   

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Meanwhile, the supposed “repression” of Russian speakers is one of the justifications the Kremlin has used for its war on Ukraine.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 23. PHOTO: AFP

The legal and constitutional context

During the Soviet period, from the late 1920s onwards, Moscow increasingly intensified its Russification of Ukrainian education, public and official life. 

But as the Soviet Union began tottering in the late 1980s and Ukrainian national assertiveness was once again felt, the Communist-dominated Soviet Ukrainian parliament adopted a law in October 1989 recognizing Ukrainian as the official State language of the republic. Russian was guaranteed “free use” as the language of “inter-ethnic communication.”

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Ukraine has been keen to shore up its security with bilateral agreements while it waits in hope of someday joining the NATO defence alliance.

Workers dismantle a golden star from Soviet era World War II memorial obelisk of Hero City monument in Kyiv, on November 4, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

In a new constitution adopted for independent Ukraine in June 1996, Article 10 of the Basic Law stipulated that the state language is Ukrainian, but the “free development, use and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine” is guaranteed.

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The battle over the status of the Russian language was rejoined in 2012, led by the pro-Russian Party of the Regions which wanted to enhance its official status in the south and east of the country.

Later, in April 2019, while at war with Russia because of its seizure of Crimea and part of the Donbas, and seeking to garner patriotic support before the presidential elections, President Petro Poroshenko’s administration pushed through a bill strengthening the position of the Ukrainian language in its public use throughout the country. It was finally passed several days after Poroshenko lost the presidential election to Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular comic actor and political newcomer.

Former President Petro Poroshenko on the Day of Constitution, June 2016. PHOTO: Wikicommons 

Before coming into office, Zelensky had been the protagonist of the satirical show “Servant of the People,” which he’d created and produced. In it he played a Russian-speaking high-school history teacher, Vasyl Holoborodko, who is unexpectedly elected president. In the show, on becoming president, Holoborodko continued to speak Russian.

Actor Volodymyr Zelensky before shooting TV series "Servant of the People" where he plays the president of Ukraine on March 6, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

On winning the presidential election in reality in 2019 by a huge margin, Zelensky however used Ukrainian in public life and did not challenge the status of the Ukrainian language. Seeking to curtail the influence of pro-Russia forces, he also shut down their TV stations. Russia’s all-out attack on Ukraine in February 2022 united its population and the language issue appeared to disappear from the radar screen.

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The reality was that Russian-speaking Ukrainians and many ethnic Russian citizens of Ukraine rallied to the defense of the country alongside Ukrainian speakers. Nevertheless, with the Zelensky administration promoting not only decommunization but also derussification in the cultural, and historical spheres to counter Russian imperialistic narratives, some Russian speakers have remained concerned about how they will be perceived in Ukraine after the war ends.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky standing in the town of Bucha, on April 4, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Discrimination?

At the end of October, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) published the results of a public opinion poll on discrimination commissioned by the European Union Consultative Mission in Ukraine.

Discrimination based on language was mentioned by 45 percent of respondents.

In a comment to Kyiv Post, the General Director of KIIS, Anton Hrushetsky, said that the issue of language was not a priority and the questions on the subject “did not specify whether this referred to the Ukrainian or Russian language,” and people were intentionally not asked about their personal experience.

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Hrushetsky said that the language controversies arise from an emotional response more than from evidence of real discrimination: “This is something that has been used by politicians for many decades to mobilize the electorate. But when people are asked whether there is systematic discrimination against the Russian language, the absolute majority believes that there is no such thing.”

Seeking EU membership, Ukraine is creating the necessary legislative conditions and the adoption of laws for the development of the languages of national minorities. Ukrainian officials have stressed that they do not consider that a Russian, or Russian-speaking “minority” exists as a legal entity in the country, as these groups have never sought to formally register themselves as such and call for caution in the use of the term “minority” in this context.

Parliamentary sources have also told Kyiv Post that the EU has not insisted on any special conditions regarding the protection of the Russian language.

President of the European Council Charles Michel (R) European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at EU summit in Brussels, on Feb. 9. PHOTO: AFP

Political projects meant to rally Russian speakers

As a result of the war, some Ukrainians who support the use of the Russian language, whilst being opposed to Russia, have been left without any obvious political leaders as they cannot see anyone available to represent their interests.

Ukrainian patriots who prefer to speak Russian are found not only in the south and east of the country but elsewhere in Ukraine, especially following the internal displacement due to the ongoing war.

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One Kyiv Post contact involved in negotiations for EU membership does not rule out the possibility of issues surrounding the Russian language being raised by the EU.

Although this may not happen any time soon, it is likely to be on the agenda after the war, and some Russian-speaking Ukrainian politicians could step forward to champion the interests of this group.

Kyiv Post sources in Parliament said it is apparent that former representatives of OPZZh are considering how they can position themselves to appeal to such voters.

One idea has been to create a political block using Ukrainian politician Yuriy Boyko’s name but without his participation and involving new faces uninvolved in politics prior to the war. Kyiv Post sources close to Boyko, however, deny he is linked to such a project.

Against this backdrop, Zelensky-opponent Oleksiy Arestovych is considered to be “reassuring to the population.”

A source close to the President’s Office told Kyiv Post that Arestovych “was one of many who came forward to help the president on Feb. 24, 2022.”  His reputation, however, was badly tarnished when he declared that a Jan. 14 tragedy in Dnipro was caused by debris from a Russian rocket shot down by Ukraine that fell on a residential building, rather than by a direct hit – a claim the government has repeatedly denied.

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Oleksiy Arestovych on Feb. 24,2022. PHOTO: Wikicommons

Although the presidential election slated for 2024 is unlikely to take place during wartime, Arestovych has announced his candidacy for president of Ukraine. He is currently running his campaign from abroad, having moved to the US after being allowed to leave as the father of several children.

Many see Arestovych as someone attempting to plug a gap created by the banning of OPZZh.

However, according to a survey conducted by the Razumkov Center, Arestovych has a low level of trust among the electorate, with his latest statements about the need to reconcile with Russia unlikely to be well received by most Ukrainians, regardless of their first language.

Most agree that, in the context of war and the need for unity, Farion’s hotheaded statements are irresponsible, provocative and destructive. Many question her motives, saying that they are not patriotic in nature. On the other hand, some politicians who had fallen out of the public eye are getting noticed again by playing on the language issue.

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