Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 226

There are signs that the Russian card will be heavily played in the upcoming Verkhovna Rada (parliamentary) elections, scheduled for March 2002. Russian is the language of everyday communication for about half of Ukraine’s population, and about one in five Ukrainian citizens is an ethnic Russian. The language, however, is being edged out of the official and educational spheres by Ukrainian, which the constitution stipulates as the sole state language. Many ethnic Russians therefore feel discriminated against, and parties exploiting this situation are likely to benefit during the campaign.

At least two major parties are certain to play the Russian language card. The Communist Party (CPU), traditionally strong in predominantly Russophone eastern and southern areas and the Crimea, is one of them. The demand to give Russian state language status is on its electoral program. The same is true of the Party of Regions–one of five parties comprising the presidential bloc For United Ukraine–whose stronghold is in the eastern Donetsk region.

An obscure force may well rise to the forefront by exploiting the Russian language issue: the Russian Bloc (RB). Given its name, this is understandable enough. But the bloc is apparently focusing exclusively on the dual state language issue. RB was founded just a month ago, on November 11, by three small parties–One Rus, the Russian-Ukrainian Union and the Russian Movement of Ukraine. The RB is oriented toward the left. It claims to express the interests of ethnic Russians and all those “working people” who “support stronger ties between the brotherly (apparently Russian and Ukrainian) nations.” Like the CPU, the RB wants Ukraine to join the Russia-Belarus union.

RB represents a potential force that those in power might be wise not to ignore or belittle. As a leftist group, it is capable of attracting some leftist and protest votes from the CPU. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma successfully used fragmentation tactics against the leftist electorate in previous elections, and there is no reason to suppose that he will not do so again. This time, the RB would logically be one of his natural allies, given that Kuchma seemingly has nothing against upgrading the status of Russian. “I said in the past and I am saying now that the Russian language should not be foreign in Ukraine,” he said in a recent interview with a Moscow newspaper. “We should have Ukrainian as the state language, but Russian should be given an official language status.” It is interesting that the Rada, where pro-government forces dominate, tried to amend the language legislation just a month before the campaign officially began. On November 30, the Rada began discussing six draft language laws, five of which give Russian official status.

The RB got its campaigning underway with the December 5-14 Ukrainian census. Leaflets calling on people to identify themselves as Russian in the census were found in mailboxes across Ukraine on December 4. The RB also issued a statement warning against “doctoring the data about the national and language composition of the population” in the census. On December 8 in Moscow, CPU leader Petro Symonenko used the same argument when speaking against the census at the Russian government-sponsored All-Russian congress of Ukrainians. It is worth noting that Ukrainian nationalists also oppose the census. On December 5 at a press conference in Kyiv, Pavlo Movchan, leader of the ultranationalist Prosvita, a cultural NGO close to the Rukh, blasted the census as a danger to the nation. Movchan was afraid that Ukrainians may “wrongly” answer the census question about the native language, claiming that they are Russian when they are in fact not. He inadvertently played into RB hands, speaking at length about the dangers of their pro-Russian campaign: The news conference was shown by major television channels supplying hitherto virtually unknown RB with additional media exposure (Trud, December 4; 1+1 TV, Forum, December 5; Interfax-Ukraine, December 8).