Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 3

On February 1, Ukraine’s Council on Language Policy–a blue-ribbon advisory group, empanelled by President Leonid Kuchma–approved a draft decision of the Cabinet of Ministers on “Measures to Enhance the Role of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language.” The draft decision seeks to lend some overdue impetus to the linguistic de-Russification of public life and to bring the official use of the Ukrainian language into accord with the existing legislation. Its aim boils down to reversing the forced linguistic russification which had–in the words of Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko–“long sought to suppress the Ukrainian language and culture and even to deny the existence of the Ukrainian nation.”

The draft decision rests on the December 14, 1999, verdict of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, which confirmed the meaning of the language law as “conferring on the Ukrainian language the status of mandatory means of communication for state bodies and local administrations, as well as in the spheres of public life, on the entire territory of Ukraine.” The same verdict confirmed that Ukrainian-language instruction is mandatory in state schools of all levels in Ukraine, without prejudice to the nonmandatory use of Russian and local languages in accordance with existing legislation.

The presidential panel proceeded also from the finding that “the introduction and actual use of the Ukrainian language as the state language is slowing down and becoming spotty, the sphere of its application is being narrowed down”–tendencies that the panel traced to uneven and inconsistent observance of language legislation by central and local authorities. The draft decision therefore envisages: monitoring the use of Ukrainian as the language of record-keeping in central and local government bodies and of communication among those bodies; testing the language proficiency of officials at various levels, so as to motivate them to speak and write Ukrainian to the extent necessary for the performance of their duties; ensuring that television and radio stations, including private ones, allocate for Ukrainian-language programs the minimum airtime share stipulated by their licenses; correlating the structure of local school systems to the ethnic composition of the local population (i.e., aiming to ensure that Ukrainian and other non-Russian students do not have to attend Russian-language schools in their areas of residence); and bringing the repertoire of state theaters in accord with their “language status.”

On February 1 and 9, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued an official protest note to Ukraine and a follow-up public statement. In effect challenging Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, the ministry in Moscow declared that the court’s verdict and the ensuing draft decision approved by the presidential panel violate the Ukrainian constitution and the rights of Russians and the “Russian-speaking population” in Ukraine. In both the diplomatic note and the statement, the central thesis runs that “Russian-speakers” make up a majority of Ukraine’s population. Hence, the Court’s verdict and the government’s draft decision “seek to ostracize the language that the majority considers its own native language, to confine it to a marginal role, perhaps even to eliminate the Russian language from public use and remove the legal basis for that use.” As one illustration of such a policy, the ministry in Moscow cited the switch from Russian to Ukrainian as the language of instruction in the schools of “Russian-speaking Kyiv.”

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.” The style of Mironov’s document may have obscured the core of its argument, which is that of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, namely that “more than half of Ukraine’s population considers Russian as its native language.” 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. While objecting to “linguistic de-Russification” in Ukraine, Mironov recently praised the human-rights record of Belarus, whose re-Sovietization includes a state-enforced policy of linguistic Russification.

Coincidentally or not, the three Russian pronouncements 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.”