An isolated interethnic clash in Lviv more than two months ago has gradually turned into a problem of interstate relations between Ukraine and Russia. On May 28 in that western Ukrainian city, the Ukrainian music composer Ihor Bilozir died in an intensive-care hospital ward after having been beaten by a group of local Russians twenty days earlier. Bilozir, 45, a popular and respected figure, never regained consciousness after the beating. The assault on Bilozir took place in a downtown cafe when he and his friends attempted to sing a Ukrainian song while Russian music was playing. The Russian assailants included the son of a senior police official in Lviv.
Bilozir’s funeral and the requiem held days after his death gave rise demonstrations in Lviv in support of the Ukrainian language. The demonstrators, as well as local and some central Ukrainian newspapers, called on the authorities to institute “derussification” measures, meaning official support for the full-fledged use of the Ukrainian language in the public sphere, where the Russian language remains dominant in large parts of Ukraine.
The Lviv municipal and regional authorities drafted legal restrictions on the playing of “vulgar foreign” songs in public places and on the permissible decibel level, with violators liable for fines. The wording of those drafts changed several times, and those measures are not known to have taken effect as yet. But the serious consideration of those measures in Lviv inflamed the general debate over language issues. Some Russian groups in Ukraine, and ultimately the Russian government, charged that Ukrainian authorities are discriminating against the Russian language. One measure introduced in Lviv is a tax break to newsstand sellers of Ukrainian-language books and newspapers, in parallel with a tax surcharge on newsstand sales of books and newspapers imported from Russia. The city of Ternopil, also in western Ukraine, has introduced a similar measure.
As might be expected in these circumstances, small but vocal fringe groups in Lviv and elsewhere–such as the Ukrainian National Assembly and the Republican Party–have aired extreme demands, ranging from bans on Russian cultural products to “out with the Muscovites” altogether. They also announced the formation of “derussification squads” in Lviv, supposedly to mobilize Ukrainians against Russian cultural supremacy. Russian leftist-nationalist groups in Ukraine seized the occasion in attempting to increase their audience and to exploit the language issue for unrelated political objectives. On July 22, nineteen parliamentary deputies announced the formation of a group “For the Union of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia” (ZUBR) in order to create a “Slavic-Orthodox community” and, in the process, “stop Ukraine from being drawn into NATO” (Itar-Tass, July 22).
Some of the polemical interventions in these debates closely resembled those of the final Soviet years. Thus a prominent Russian scientist in Kyiv, director of a leading institute there and a member of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences, condemned the calls to increase Ukrainian language use in public life as an outbreak of “nationalism” and “hostility to everything Russian.” To refute those calls, he contended that more than half of Ukraine’s population is in any case classifiable as “Russian-speaking;” and he decried attempts to reorient the country–“even my institute”–from the Russian to a Western cultural and “psychological” orbit.
This otherwise liberal figure made his comments in one of the mass-circulation Russian newspapers which dominate the overall Ukrainian market at the expense of Ukrainian-language newspapers (Trud, July 28). It is not uncommon for Russian liberal intellectuals in Ukraine to, in effect, concede western Ukraine to the Ukrainian language sphere while defending the linguistic status quo in Kyiv and eastern Ukraine, where russification has made deep inroads.
Also reminiscent of 1989-90, Russia’s ORT Television blanketed Ukraine with one-sided coverage of the language debate. The network focused on the demands of Ukrainian fringe groups, portrayed the moderate calls for support to the Ukrainian language as anti-Russian, and politicized the language issue in a manner which diverted attention from its merits. One major thesis in this coverage held that calls for greater public use of the Ukrainian language are “divisive” because they “separate Ukrainian from Russian speakers.” Those who remember ORT’s role in the language debates in Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic States during the final Soviet years must have had a sense of deja vu. On July 25, Ukraine’s Television and Radio State Committee lodged an official protest against ORT’s coverage as distorted and inflammatory. On July 26, ORT’s management rejected the protest, defended the network’s special role “in the CIS information space” and asserted “the historical and cultural unity of our peoples.” Such wording–as well as ORT’s performance itself–could easily be regarded as reluctance to recognize Ukraine’s national and cultural identity. That, too, is a fairly common attitude even among Russian liberals, though one receding in the last few years.
It was not until mid-July that the Russian government officially weighed in. Russia’s ambassador in Kyiv, Ivan Aboimov, presented a note of protest against alleged pressures on the Russian language in Ukraine which implied that the Ukrainian government condones such discrimination. On July 19, Russia’s State Duma followed suit with a similar statement which it adopted by a wide margin. The sequence showed that Russia’s executive branch led the way, contrary to assumptions that it merely responds to leftist-nationalist moods in Russia’s body politic. Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Verkhovna Rada responded cautiously, their basic position being that the aspiration to restore the national language to a rightful place in public life cannot be interpreted as an anti-Russian or discriminatory attitude. The ministry and the Rada pointed out that Ukraine has received good marks for its policies on language and ethnic minorities from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Zhulynsky–responsible for cultural and education issues–cited statistics which show that Russian-language schools and mass media in Ukraine hold a place substantially exceeding the proportion of Russians in Ukraine’s population. The Ukrainian statements, furthermore, noted that the 10 million-strong Ukrainian population in Russia does not have any schools, newspapers or radio and television in its language.
President Leonid Kuchma finally addressed the situation in remarks to journalists on July 27. Implicitly rejecting calls for conferring official status on the Russian language in Ukraine, Kuchma stated that the country has and will have one state language. “Let us in the final analysis be Ukrainians and not display a sense of inferiority about it,” Kuchma concluded, alluding to inferiority feelings instilled during Russian and Soviet rule with regard to the Ukrainian language and national-cultural identity. Kuchma himself exemplifies the gradual overcoming of that complex by many Ukrainians. The president had a poor command of his native language only a few years ago, before emerging as a promoter of the national statehood and culture (based on Ukrainian and Russian media coverage of the developments in Ukraine).
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