Ukraine’s Linguistic Imbroglio: Is Russian Under Threat?

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By Nataliya Borys, translated by James Hewlett

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In 2014, the new Ukrainian government abolished Law no. 5029-VI of 2012 on language policy, which promoted the equal use of regional languages and Ukrainian, the country’s official language.  This action is somewhat difficult to comprehend, as it was intended that the Law of 2012 would be more in keeping with the provisions of the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages, by giving non-Ukrainian speakers the possibility of using their language in a given area, if the number of speakers exceeded 10% of the local population.  Immediately, in both Russia and Ukraine, concerns were raised, protesting that the Russian language was in danger and that Ukraine’s Russian-speakers should have the right to express themselves in their own language.  Why has this law caused an unprecedented crisis? Is Russian really under threat in Ukraine? Can Russian speakers freely express themselves in their language?  Why has the Ukrainian government abolished this law?  What was their strategy?

We should first remind ourselves of the country’s linguistic situation. In 1989, the USSR adopted a national language law that placed Ukrainian on an equal footing with Russian.  It was only in 1996 that Ukrainian was recognized as the official language, whilst Russian lost its status as a national language.  This change provoked neither debate nor protest as Soviet practices and the use of Russian remained widespread.  Most administrative documents were written in both Russian and Ukrainian, and the population continued to speak both languages, according to region and family preferences.

Despite the confusion that sometimes prevails in the media, it is important to distinguish Russian-speaking Ukrainians from Russians as a national minority. According to the 2011 National Census[1], 17% of the population in Ukraine are Russian[2], and 29% are Russian-speaking Ukrainians (whose mother tongue is Russian).[3]  Therefore, Russian-speakers statistically form the largest linguistic minority in the country.

It all begin on the 5th June 2012, when the Ukrainian Parliament, on the initiative of the former President Viktor Yanukovych, voted for the ”On the Principles of State Language Policy” law, which extended the right to use regional languages at a local level.[4]  Based on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Law of 2012 stipulated that Ukrainian was the country’s official language, and extended the official use of regional languages when the number of speakers reached at least 10% of the population of a given region.  In total, 18 languages were taken into consideration in Ukraine.  In accordance with Articles 7 and 10 of the Law, the “regional language” and the official language may be used equally in all areas of public life; in the Parliament, the Municipal Council, local organisations, legal proceedings, schools, and so on.  The regions of Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhya, Dnipropetrovsk, Luhansk, and Donetsk have declared Russian as the regional language, whilst Hungarian and Romanian have obtained the same status in border areas.

From the perspective of protecting national minorities, the law presented by Yanukovych was liberal and respectful of minority languages. In practice, Yanukovych’s main strategy was to seduce his mostly Russian-speaking electorate, on the eve of the election.  In free fall in the polls, even in his native region of Donbass, he decided to play this card to seduce his electorate.  He himself began learning Ukrainian after being elected, but this was not without difficulty; no least because he had become a laughing stock online due to his poor level of Ukrainian.  At the time, this law, proposed by Yanukovych, provoked strong protests from the opposition, who saw it as a form of forced russification, a rapprochement with Russia, and a threat to Ukrainian.  Even the President of the Ukrainian Parliament, Vladimir Litvine, resigned from his post following the adoption of this Bill, as until then, no Ukrainian president, even those who spoke Russian, had ever questioned Ukrainian as the country’s official language.

On the 24 February 2014, at the peak of the Euromaidan protests and following Yanukovych’s fall from power, the Ukrainian Parliament repealed this law. Yet, even though the acting President, Oleksandr Turchynov, quickly exercised his veto, the damage had already been done and demonstrations began immediately. Why did the government repeal this law and why did this cause such an outcry in Ukraine?

Because, this abolition did not mean that Russian was suddenly threatened with extinction, just that its dominant position was called into question. Russian is still prevalent in many parts of the country, particularly in Donbass and the majority of towns in Eastern and Southern areas, as well as in the media.  By repealing this law, the Government wanted to impose positive discrimination for Ukrainian by slowing down its long-term decline, as it is not widely used.  Furthermore, the use of Russian as an official language is perceived as a sign of the country’s russification.  Language is still a major identity marker in Ukraine, and the fear that Ukrainian may disappear is linked to that of a loss of national identity.

However, the fears of Ukrainian speakers are well founded, as Ukrainian is indeed underused. Only 43% of the population speak Ukrainian at home, whilst 39% speak Russian, and 17% speak both.[5]  In addition, these 43% of Ukrainian speakers are poorly represented.  In 2011, only 20% of the content broadcast across the 8 national TV channels and 30% of newspapers published were in Ukrainian. Russian reigns in the media.  Despite some restrictions, such as in the Ukrainian Parliament, where it is strictly forbidden to use any language other than Ukrainian during parliamentary sessions, the use of Russian is not sanctioned in practice.  Parliamentarians debate in both Russian and Ukrainian and often switch between the two languages.  The rule of using the sole official language is flouted everywhere and at all levels.  The most recent example is the national identity card, where details are given in both Russian and Ukrainian, contrary to Ukrainian law.  On the 7 August 2015, the Ukrainian citizen, Svyatoslav Litinsky, won a lawsuit against the State and received his national identity card in Ukrainian, without its Russian duplicate.[6]

Despite the fact that the country is mostly Russian-speaking and that bureaucratic practices are largely bilingual, perceptions, fears, and Russian propaganda have reinforced the feeling of insecurity among Russian-speakers. The question of language has become their favourite topic, and they refuse to accept what they consider to be a decline of Russian as a regional and minority language.  Vladimir Putin immediately seized this argument to justify protecting the Russian language and Russians themselves: “Millions of people live and will continue to live in Ukraine, including Russian citizens and Russian-speakers. Russia will always protect them”.[7]

Nevertheless, with the annexation of Crimea and the war in the East of the country in the name of protecting Russian-speakers, language has become a major political marker. Bilingual inhabitants, particularly those who speak Russian in the South and East of the country are, as a result, using Ukrainian as a sign of protest against Russian intervention. The appeal by Russian media to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine has had the opposite effect.  According to figures from a survey conducted in April 2014, 57% of the population believe that Ukrainian should remain the only official language, whilst 38% wanted both Ukrainian and Russian to remain as official languages.[8]  Another survey indicated that 81% of Russian speakers are against this so-called Russian ‘protection’ of their rights in Ukraine.[9]  The slow ukrainianisation of the country, which has previously failed, is now triumphant and the dream of the Ukrainian elite to see the Ukrainian language resurrected is beginning to take shape. But all thanks to whom exactly?

[1] Only one census was carried out in Ukraine, in 2001.

[2] It is not very clear, what this percentage includes; citizens of the Russian Federation, ethnic Russians, or Ukrainian Citizens. Ukraine does not recognize dual citizenship.



[5] According to the 2011 poll, see Andrew Wilson, Ukraine crisis: what it means for the West, New Haven : Yale University Press, 2014.





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