Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 33

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s protest notes against Ukrainian state support to the Ukrainian state language (see the Monitor, February 11) was neither a bolt out of the blue, nor is it likely to remain an isolated occurrence. It signals instead 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.

Coincidentally or not, the two Russian diplomatic notes accompanied an “interethnic forum” held on February 5-6 in Kyiv under the leadership of Russian activists. The forum protested against Ukraine’s language policies as “a new phase in the linguistic war against a large part of Ukraine’s population.” (UNIAN, February 7). On February 10, the Kremlin’s Plenipotentiary for Human Rights, Oleg Mironov, issued a statement equating Ukrainian state support for the state language with “forcible restrictions on the functioning of the Russian language, a blatant and gross violation of civilized norms of conduct among peoples, a violation of fundamental human rights, [and] an unparalleled linguistic discrimination on a mass scale.” The “so-called linguistic de-Russification,” Mironov warned, is incompatible with relations among the “fraternal peoples.” He announced his intention to complain against Ukraine at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (Itar-Tass, Federal News Service, February 10). While objecting to “linguistic de-Russification” in Ukraine, Mironov recently praised the human-rights record of Belarus (see the Monitor, November 12, 1999; February 3), whose re-Sovietization includes a state-enforced policy of linguistic Russification.

The style of Mironov’s document may have obscured the core of its argument, namely that “more than half of Ukraine’s population considers Russian as its native language.” The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s note similarly referred to “the Russian-speaking Kyiv.” This thesis suggests an incipient, still tentative official attempt at denying or disputing national identity on the basis of Soviet-era linguistic Russification. A similar tendency to recast certain national groups, for reasons of political expediency, as “Russian-speaking populations” is apparent in statements of the new chairman of the Russian Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Dmitry Rogozin (see the Monitor, February 10). That redefinition forms a part of the ideology of Russian nationalist groups which are now acceding to establishment status under Putin.

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 countrywide 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 reserves 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” (UNIAN, DINAU, February 14).

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 (see the Monitor, July 9, September 1, 3, 14, October 12, November 17, 1999). But that was before Putin had become president and introduced a harsher tone in Russia’s policy toward its now independent neighbors.