The Party of Regions (PRU), which strengthened its grip on Ukraine’s Russophone east and south after the March 26 parliamentary election, continues to probe the government’s weaknesses, challenging it on the sensitive issue of language.
The PRU-dominated Donetsk regional council has followed the example of the PRU-dominated Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Sevastopol councils, approving regional-language status for Russian. The government, in response, threatened to come up with tough measures against all those who violate the constitution, according to which Ukrainian is the only language having official status. The government’s position is that the councils’ language decisions are a threat to national security, part of a plan to exacerbate tension in society and downgrade the status of Ukrainian. The government also argues that language matters are the remit of the national — rather than regional — bodies of power.
The PRU, meanwhile, looks set to raise the issue at the national level. On May 17, the party’s governing body — the political council — issued a statement, “On the Protection of Constitutional Rights of the Russian-speaking Citizens of Ukraine,” promising to raise the Russian language issue soon after the new parliament convenes on May 25. In the statement, the PRU pledged “to continue to defend the right of people to think, speak, and educate their children in the mother tongue.” The PRU brushed aside the Justice Ministry’s protests against the decisions of Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Sevastopol on the status of Russian, saying that only the Constitutional Court is entitled to rule on language matters. Incidentally, the PRU has been among the parties blocking the election of new judges to the Constitutional Court, fearing that the Court might take President Viktor Yushchenko’s side and reverse the recent constitutional reforms that diminished the president’s authority.
On May 18, the Donetsk region council voted by 122 votes to three (with one abstention) to give Russian the status of regional language. As in the cases of Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Sevastopol, Donetsk deputies said they were guided by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The council not only ruled that Russian may be used in business, official documents, and educational establishments on a par with Ukrainian, but it also called on parliament to give Russian state-language status along with Ukrainian. The council said that the current constitution ignores the fact that Russian is the mother tongue for about one-third of Ukrainians, equating Russian to the many minority languages spoken by small communities inside Ukraine. Along with the PRU, the Communists and the radical left-wing Progressive Socialists in the Donetsk council supported the language decision.
Official reaction followed immediately. Donetsk Region Prosecutor Oleksiy Bahanets, who is subordinated to Kyiv, promised to appeal the council’s decision in court as soon as he obtains official documents on the matter from the council. On May 18, the cabinet gathered for a meeting to condemn the eastern councils on language matters. Deputy Prime Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Vyacheslav Kyrylenko blamed “certain forces” for trying to “downgrade and practically fully exclude the state language from usage, rather than protect minority languages.” President Yushchenko’s legal adviser, Mykola Poludyonny, went even further, warning of a separatist threat.
The Justice Ministry was instructed to come up with amendments to language laws and regulations in order to toughen penalties for language-legislation violators. It was also decided that the next meeting of the National Security and Defense Council would be on the language issue. It may, however, take some time for the council to convene, as its secretary, Anatoly Kinakh, resigned last week. Kyrylenko apparently found it difficult to explain, speaking on television on May 22, why exactly the elevation of the Russian language status in the eastern regions was a national security threat. “The state has certain principles, and state language is an element of national security… very important for state institutes,” he offered.
The language row reveals the lack of understanding regarding how deep the language problem runs in Kyiv. It has been ignored for years, and President Yushchenko continues to insist that there is no language problem at all, despite the fact that pro-Communist and pro-Russian forces have been regularly using the language issue against the government in all sorts of elections. There has been no consistent policy of Ukrainianization, famous Ukrainian philosopher Myroslav Popovych believes. Commenting for the website Forum, he noted that it is sometimes difficult to admit that the issue is actually about the “assimilation of the Russian-speaking population,” which has to be “logical and unforced,” but so far has been forcible. Media expert Mykola Knyazhytsky told Forum that the main mistake of the government has been imposing Ukrainian in those regions where it is traditionally barely spoken, instead of financing Ukrainian culture in the traditionally Ukrainian-speaking areas, such as Lviv.
(Interfax-Ukraine, May 17, 18; Channel 5, May 18; NTN TV, For-ua.com, May 19; 1+1 TV, May 22; see EDM, May 17)