Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 3

?”The arguments in Moscow’s pronouncements suggest a policy shift toward defending the linguistic situation which took shape during the Soviet era. While the Russian population in Ukraine amounted then, as it does now, to some 23 percent of the total, the official policy of Russification created a situation in which Russian nationalists–and, now, official Moscow–feel free to redefine a majority of Ukrainians as a “Russian-speaking population” and to challenge the legitimacy of Ukrainian steps to restore the native language to the role it performs in any normal independent country. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry warned in both of its documents that it would lodge complaints with European bodies against Ukraine’s “attempts to distort and alter the specific cultural-linguistic environment in the country”–a reference to the Soviet-era status quo in the language sphere.

Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry replied in a February 13 statement that the Russian notes “in effect accuse Ukraine of ensuring the right of its citizens to use their own language and to revitalize and consolidate the national identity, which came close to being eradicated during the decades of forced Russification.” The statement listed Ukraine’s steps to observe the stipulations of Council of Europe and OSCE documents on the rights of national minorities. It noted the “free functioning of Russian schools, theaters, radio and television stations and newspapers in Ukraine.” It cited statistics showing 2,400 Russian-language, state-supported schools of all levels in Ukraine, whose enrollment amounts to 32 percent of the country-wide total in medium schools and 35 percent of that total in higher-education establishments, thus exceeding the 22 percent share of Russians in Ukraine’s population. And it contrasted this situation with that in Russia, where the multimillion Ukrainian diaspora has no cultural and educational facilities available. The note reserved the right for Ukraine to ask the Council of Europe, the OSCE and other international organizations to assess these accusations against Ukraine, “if the practice of groundless accusations and distortion of the facts goes on.”

In the Verkhovna Rada, the Communist leader Petro Symonenko seconded the Russian government’s position. Complaining that “education is being switched from the Russian to the Ukrainian language” in Ukraine, Symonenko reaffirmed his stand in favor of conferring “state status” or “official status” on the Russian language. Symonenko and other leftist candidates took that position in the recent presidential election campaign; it was a position that Moscow did not support. But that was before Putin had become president and introduced a harsher tone in Russia’s policy toward newly independent neighboring countries.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s action was not a bolt out of the blue, just as it is not likely to remain an isolated occurrence. Rather, it signals a shift in Russian policy, notice of which had been served at the February 3 session of Russia’s cabinet of ministers. Acting President Vladimir Putin, chairing the session in his concurrent capacity as prime minister, called for steps to “create a favorable linguistic environment for our compatriots in the CIS and Baltic states” as an “exceptionally important matter” for the Russian government. Putin tasked the CIS Affairs Minister, Leonid Drachevsky, to prepare an interagency action program aimed at boosting the position of the Russian language in CIS and Baltic states.

Drachevsky’s mandate suggests that the program is being designed as a political tool, in the hope of arresting and possibly reversing the decline of Russian influence in those countries. Emerging from the Putin meeting, Drachevsky cited the following rationale for the action program: “Centripetal tendencies [vis-a-vis Russia] persist in some of those countries, along with a multitude of negative factors. Isolationism, mistrust and national egoism are deliberately being fostered, while the Russian language is being pushed out of the governmental, administrative and informational spheres, and the number of Russian-language schools is declining.” This situation, he concluded, “dictates the need to work out and implement bilateral measures that would ensure the effective functioning and development of the Russian language in CIS and Baltic states.”

This line of argument suggests that Putin’s government equates those countries’ opening to the world with adversity to Russia, objects to the status of national languages as state languages, expects the independent countries to prefer Russian to English in the information sphere, has difficulty accepting the derussification of the Soviet-bequeathed school systems, and seeks to restore some kind of privileged status for the Russian language in the independent post-Soviet countries.

This thesis suggests an incipient, still tentative, official attempt at denying or disputing national identity on the basis of Soviet-era linguistic Russification. That redefinition forms a part of the ideology of Russian nationalist groups which are now gaining establishment status under Putin.