What Ukraine’s New Language Law Means for National Unity

Dyakuyu or Spasibo? The controversy over whether Russian should be recognized as an official language of Ukraine is so heated that it has compelled Ukrainian politicians to tear each other’s clothes, flip parliamentarians over bannisters, and recently provoked the speaker of parliament to tender his resignation

On August 8, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed a new law, “On the principles of language politics,” that allows cities and regions to pass legislation that would give Russian (or any other minority tongue) the status of an official language if 10 percent or more of the population of that region speaks it as a native tongue.

Most Ukrainians speak and understand both Ukrainian and Russian, and it is not uncommon to hear conversations in which one speaker uses Ukrainian and the other answers in Russian. But 20 years after Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, that old reality is changing. Increasingly, one can meet western Ukrainian youth who speak no Russian and whose second or third languages are English, German, Polish, or French. They gaze longingly at the European Union and have no desire to speak what they regard as the language of their Soviet repressors and occupiers. Their countrymen in the east, however, are not similarly concerned. Officially, 24 percent of Ukrainians, largely those who live in the east and south, report Russian as their native language. However, many Ukrainians who commonly speak Russian recognize the importance of maintaining Ukrainian as the national language.

After much debate, the official status of the Ukrainian language was enshrined in Ukraine’s 1996 constitution. Despite predictions that the young country would split apart along linguistic lines, the consensus for Ukrainian has largely held and the use of Ukrainian has grown. Russian-speaking politicians have strived to learn and speak to the public in Ukrainian. Although he was a native Russian speaker and often made mistakes, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma did just that. So also did former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko.

President Yanukovych initially made the same choice: to sacrifice his personal comfort for the sake of national unity. But as parliamentary elections approach and his Party of Regions continues to struggle in the polls, Yanukovych has decided to keep a campaign promise to his base in the east and advocate for the promotion of Russian to an official language. It is in no way as a pro-Russian decision, but a base political one.

The hard-won status of Ukrainian as the unifying state language is now in danger. On August 13, the southern city of Odesa’s City Council voted to give Russian the status of an official regional language. The city of Kharkiv did the same a week later. Komsomol’skaya Pravda reports that the president’s home city of Donets’k intends to quickly pass similar legislation. Meanwhile, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, a Russian-language stronghold whose autonomous status has long allowed the official use of Russian, the Ukrainian-speaking minority has begun to agitate for the designation of Ukrainian as a regional language. They cite Crimean Tatar, a language spoken by the Crimean Tatar minority, whose official status is enshrined in the Crimean Constitution. Ukrainian speakers now demand the same.

Ukrainians on the whole have shown themselves to be remarkably practical about the language question. Generally it only arises as an issue around elections. The unfortunate result of the Yanukovych administration’s support for the language law has exacerbated nationalist tensions and encouraged underlying ethnic and linguistic animosities. The October parliamentary elections, should they be free and fair, will demonstrate the extent to which ordinary Ukrainian citizens are invested in the continued unity and progress of their country. With the new law on languages, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have only deepened the hole that they have dug for themselves and their country with their poor foreign policy choices and jailing of political opponents. Perhaps the language law will help prompt Ukrainian citizens to take steps this October to begin to climb its way out.