Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 30

On February 1, the 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 bring the official use of the Ukrainian language in 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–“sought for so long to suppress the Ukrainian language and culture and even to deny the existence of the Ukrainian nation.”

The draft decision rests on Ukraine’s Constitutional Court’s verdict of December 14, 1999, 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 other languages in accordance with existing legislation.

The presidential panel, for its part, proceeded from the finding that “the introduction and actual use of the Ukrainian language as the state language is slowing down and turning spotty, the sphere of its application is being narrowed down”–tendencies which the panel traced to uneven and inconsistent observance of language legislation on the part of both central and local authorities. The draft decision therefore envisions: (1) monitoring the use of Ukrainian as the language of recordkeeping in central and local government bodies and of communication among those bodies; (2) 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; (3) ensuring that television and radio stations, including private ones, allocate for Ukrainian-language programs the minimum airtime share stipulated by their licenses; (4) correlating the structure of local school systems to the ethnic composition of the local population (in plain talk, aiming to ensure that Ukrainian and other non-Russian students do not have to attend Russian-language schools in their areas of residence); and (5) bringing the repertoire of state theaters into 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 taking issue with Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, the ministry in Moscow declared that its 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 draft cabinet 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 and to eliminate the legal basis for its use” (Itar-Tass, February 9). To illustrate this policy, Ukrainian authorities are switching to Ukrainian as the language of instruction in schools in “Russian-speaking Kyiv” (Itar-Tass, February 1).

These arguments are novel in Moscow’s public discourse and suggest a policy shift toward defending the linguistic situation which took shape in the Soviet era. While the Russian population in Ukraine amounted then, as it does now, to some 22 percent of the total, the official policy of Russification resulted in a situation which now enables Moscow to redefine a majority of Ukrainians as “Russian-speaking population” and to challenge the legitimacy of Ukrainian steps to restore the native language to the role it performs in any normal independent country. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry warned in both of its documents that it would lodge complaints against Ukraine with European bodies against the attempts to “distort and alter the specific cultural-linguistic environment in the country”–a reference to the Soviet-era status quo in the language sphere (UNIAN, DINAU, January 27, February 1, 7; Itar-Tass, February 1, 9-10).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at pubs@jamestown.org, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions