The language card is being played in Ukraine again, which often happens when elections loom. On February 22 Ukraine’s parliament, which is dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (PRU), decided to vote by the end of July on a bill that grants the Russian language official status. President Viktor Yushchenko will oppose this bill.
The re-established opposition alliance of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are pushing for an early parliamentary election (see EDM, February 28). The ruling coalition, backed by Yanukovych, may retaliate by amending the legislation to call an early presidential election. This would be bad for Yushchenko, as his re-election chances currently are slim. PRU deputy Vasyl Kyselyov announced on February 28 that a bill may be submitted to parliament to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously on September 30, 2007.
Linguistic identity is a sensitive issue in a society divided roughly in half along linguistic lines. Ukrainian parties often focus on the language issue when they want to mobilize their electorates. Yanukovych’s PRU quite successfully played the language card in the run-up to the March 2006 parliamentary election. One of its main election promises was to give Russian official status.
There are signs that the PRU is resorting to the same tactics now, while Yushchenko has been de facto playing into their hands, inadvertently mobilizing his Russian-speaking opponents. Speaking in public recently, he has been regularly stressing the priority of the Ukrainian language.
Courts in the Russian-speaking regions, where the PRU dominates the political scene, recently delivered verdicts in favor of granting Russian the status of a regional language. On February 6 the Kharkiv Region Court of Appeals overruled a verdict by a lower court dating from August 2006, by which the Kharkiv City Council’s March 2006 decision to grant Russian the status of regional language had been outlawed. Similar rulings were made on February 20 by a court in Donetsk relating to the regional status of Russian there, and by a district court in Kyiv on March 6 relating to the regional status of Russian in Kharkiv and Mykolaiv.
On February 21, the PRU’s Donetsk regional branch issued a statement calling on the government to “stop limiting the rights of Russian-speaking citizens.” The statement, in particular, protested the Culture Ministry’s initiative to introduce compulsory Ukrainian-language dubbing for half of all foreign-made movies for adults and for all movies for children. The statement described this as “discrimination against the Russian language.”
The Donetsk City Council was more straightforward. On the same day, it unanimously passed a statement pledging to do everything to make Russian a second official language. In the statement, the Council accused Western Ukraine, which strongly opposes granting any status to Russian, of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. The statement urged the western regions of the country to respect Donetsk’s “culture and traditions, and its native language.”
Council Secretary Mykola Levchenko, who is a member of the PRU, expressed the most radical view. “The Russian language has to be a state language in Ukraine,” Ukrainski Novyny news agency quoted him as saying. “The Ukrainian language will continue to exist as a language of folklore, but it contributes nothing to the development of science or interethnic communication, because nobody knows it.” Levchenko’s party colleagues have hurried to explain that this opinion was a private view, rather than the party’s position.
Quoting the nationalist Ukrainian People’s Party Donetsk branch, several Ukrainian news outlets reported that the Security Service (SBU) had launched a criminal case against the Donetsk City Council over the language statement. SBU deputy chief Henady Moskal, however, denied those reports, speaking to Channel 5 on March 10.
Yushchenko, addressing in the Russian-speaking Crimea on February 22, said that the Ukrainian legislation does not provide for the status of regional language. Meeting young Ukrainian scientists in Kyiv a day earlier, Yushchenko said that those who do not want Ukraine to be free are the ones who do not accept the single national language. “There is no nation without a language,” he said.
Addressing the local intelligentsia in Western Lviv on March 6, Yushchenko singled out the preservation of official status for only Ukrainian as a government priority, along with European integration and developing a competitive domestic market. Listing national priorities, Yushchenko placed the single state language at the top, speaking at a meeting with his supporters near the monument to the national poet Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv on March 9.
The current constitution does not provide any special status for Russian. According to various surveys, about half of Ukrainians are in favor of raising the status of Russian. A public opinion poll conducted by the All-Ukrainian Sociological Service last fall showed that Russian is the native language for 39% of Ukrainians, and that 48-50% of them prefer Russian in everyday communication.
(For-ua.com, October 18; UNIAN, February 6; Itar-Tass, February 20; ProUA.com, Ostro.org, February 21; Ukrainski Novyny, Interfax-Ukraine, February 22; Ukrayinska pravda, February 28; Glavred.info, March 7; Channel 5, March 7, 10)