The Russian language issue has been employed in the run-up to the March 26 Ukrainian parliamentary election probably more actively than in any past poll. Unlike in previous elections, where marginal groups and low-key candidates played the Russian-language card, now such heavyweights as the frontrunner Party of Regions (PRU) has made elevating the status of Russian a key promise.
“This issue has a significant conflict potential, that is why it is very tempting to use it in elections,” Andriy Bychenko of the Razumkov Center think tank said, presenting the results of a December 2005 nationwide opinion poll on the attitudes toward the Russian language. The poll showed that more than 60% of Ukrainians are in favor of raising the status of Russian, including 37% who believe that Ukrainian and Russian should have equal status. The 1996 Constitution, however, does not provide for any status for Russian whatsoever, but stipulates that Ukrainian is the sole state language. Hence the high conflict potential and temptation to abuse the issue.
Feelings about the Russian language are especially strong in eastern and southern Ukraine, including Crimea. In those areas, according to an April 2005 poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Kyiv-based Sociology Institute, support for the idea of making Russian either a second state language or an official regional language hovers around 90%. More than half of western Ukrainians are against this, according to the same poll.
The parties that regard the Russophone eastern and southern areas as their strongholds have been capitalizing on what they describe as the authorities’ failure to address the Russian-language issue. In the current campaign, all those parties represent the opposition, while the national-minded west and center of Ukraine have stayed loyal to the parties that used to form the Orange Revolution coalition. Playing the Russian-language card is nothing new for the radical leftists — the Communist Party (CPU) and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSPU) of Natalya Vitrenko. Elevating the status of Russian to a second state language has always been among their main slogans. In the current campaign, however, they have at least two very strong rivals playing in the same field: the United Social Democratic Party (SDPUO) of Viktor Medvedchuk, who was a key aide to former president Leonid Kuchma, and the Party of Regions (PRU) of former presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych.
One of the main slogans of the SDPUO’s campaign reads: “Against NATO, for the Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and for the Russian language.” The text reads more like a communist leaflet. The appearance of strong rivals playing in the same field is arguably the main reason behind dwindling popular support for the CPU and the PSPU. One telling example is the Russophone Donetsk Region, which was the main electoral base of the CPU a decade ago, but now is the stronghold of the PRU.
PRU leader Viktor Yanukovych, who routinely spoke Ukrainian when he was prime minister in 2002-2004, ostensibly speaks Russian on his campaign trips. The PRU’s campaign brochure “50 questions and answers” promises a nationwide referendum in order to give Russian “the state status, on par with Ukrainian,” as “56% of Ukrainian citizens routinely use the Russian language in everyday life.”
The PRU collected 300,000 signatures for a local referendum on the status of the Russian language earlier this year in Crimea, which is, ironically, the only region where Russian actually enjoys a special status, according to the local constitution. Based on this, on February 22 the Crimean parliament voted to hold a local non-binding referendum on the status of Russian on March 26, to coincide with the general elections. The Ukrainian Justice Ministry, however, warned that the referendum would be illegal.
For the moment, it is not clear whether the referendum will be held at all. It is clear, however, that it will have no legal consequences, which its organizers readily admit, saying that their goal is just to raise public awareness of the problem. The Crimean Tatars, who back the government in Kyiv, will ignore the Russian language referendum, their leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, told Glavred web site.
On March 6, the city council of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine voted to grant Russian the status of a regional language. President Yushchenko’s legal adviser, Mykola Poludyony, said the council’s decision was illegal, as the council had acted outside its remit. Kyiv’s official position is that there is no Russian language problem. “This is speculation by certain politicians ahead of the election,” Yushchenko said on a trip to western Ivano-Frankivsk last month. On March 11, in his regular weekly radio address to the nation, Yushchenko warned against “provoking conflicts around the language issue in the heat of the election campaign.”
(LIGABiznesInform, May 5, 2005; proUA.com, February 22; Interfax-Ukraine, February 24; Glavred.info, March 3; Itar-Tass, UT1, March 6; UNIAN, February 7, March 7; Ukrainian radio, March 11)