Ukraine Should Not Fear the Use of Russian Language in its Russocentric Regions

I completely forgot I had this student guest post in waiting!  Here’s an Op-Ed style piece on Ukraine’s recent language debate…standard Op-Ed disclaimers apply.

Concentration of Russian Language Speakers in Ukraine

(Map from the Kyiv Post, based on a survey by Razumkov, a Kyiv-based think tank)

A controversy is simmering in Ukraine over the official language of the state. In early 2012, the ruling Party of Regions introduced a bill into the Verhovna Rada giving official status to Russian as the language of state in 13 of Ukraine’s 27 oblasts. The logic behind the bill is that nearly 37% of Ukrainian citizens use only the Russian language at home.[1] As a result of the inter-war annexation, Ukraine is linguistically split between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west, although the lines are not sharply drawn. Critics of the bill cite various reasons for opposing it. Volodymyr Lytvyn, who resigned his post as Chairman of the Rada over the bill, claims the Party of Regions pushed the bill through in an illegitimate and illegal way. “I have been fooled,” Mr. Lytvyn claimed, “Ukraine has been fooled, [and] the people have been fooled.”[2] Mykola Riabchuk, whom the Economist describes as a “Ukrainian intellectual,” claims the real aim of the bill is to “marginalize and ultimately eliminate Ukrainian.”[3] In May 2012, members of the far-right nationalist Svoboda party staged demonstrations in Kyiv in an attempt to block the bill. Young party supporters clashed with riot police protecting the Rada building, exchanging tear gas grenades and punches.

Breakdown of the 2004 Presidential Election vote. Compare to the map above and you might note that Yanukovych’s support is highest in heavily Russian-speaking regions.
(Source: Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission, posted on UPenn’s Language Log)

The language issue is sensitive in Ukraine because it is connected to a deep controversy over the country’s past and future. Nationalism is a powerful political force in Ukraine, and its main target is Russia. While opponents of a Russocentric Ukraine may have different goals, from Westernization for free-market liberals to an ethnic Ukrainian national state for Svoboda, they are united in their opposition to what they perceive as backsliding towards Russia and the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, according to a study by Tadeus Olszanski, a significant portion of Ukraine’s citizens identify themselves with Russian language and culture. When asked to describe “who I above all consider myself to be,” 13 percent answered “A citizen of the former USSR”. On the question of “which culture am I above all linked to”, 11% answered “Russian culture”, while 16% answered “Soviet culture.”[4] President Victor Yuschenko is a native speaker of Russian himself, and his Party of the Regions has a base of support in the Russian-speaking minority.

A nationalist desire to differentiate themselves from the Russians is not necessarily a bad thing for Ukraine. However, the claims that this bill will “eliminate Ukrainian”, such as Riabchuk’s, are specious. The bill reaffirms that Ukrainian will be the only language used at the national level, which represents Ukraine on the international stage. It allows local and regional governments to adopt Russian in addition to Ukrainian, as long as ten percent of the population speaks Russian. This will allow government services to be delivered in the native language of the local population. Allowing native speakers of Russian to interact with their government in that language will help ease communications between society and state institutions, resulting in greater state legitimacy. Opposition to the bill should be dropped.

[1] Tadeus Olszanski, “The Language Issue in Ukraine: An Attempt at a New Perspective”, OSW Studies 40 (Warsaw: 2012), 20

[2] David M. Herszenhorn, “Ukrainian Official Quits to Protest Russian Language Bill,” New York Times, July 4, 2012. Accessed Feb 14, 2013.

[3] A.C. “Hate speech, or merely dislike it?” The Economist, July 5, 2012. Accessed Feb 14, 2012.

[4] Olszanski, “The Language Issue in Ukraine,” 18


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