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UKRAINE: Russian Language Toned Down

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Aug 11 2008 (IPS) - Russian speakers in Ukraine say the lack of state recognition for the biggest linguistic minority in Europe amounts to discrimination, but opponents argue that recognition will endanger the development of Ukrainian language.

Russian is the most important minority language and the most common second language in Ukraine, though among Russian speakers many are historically ‘Russified’ ethnic Ukrainians.

Ukrainian is the only official language in Ukraine, and is closely related to Russian. The two Slavic languages are spoken by roughly equal proportions of the 48 million population.

Ukrainian prevails in Western Ukraine, whereas Russian is widely spoken in the south and east of the country as well as capital Kiev, in what constitutes the largest Russian speaking community outside Russia.

Many Russian speakers want Russian to be recognised as Ukraine’s second official language, and see this as an acknowledgment of the multi-ethnic nature of the country.

The demand has the support of most opposition political parties, namely those favouring closer ties with Russia, but is opposed by Ukraine’s western oriented cabinet.


Russian speakers generally want their children to be fluent in Ukrainian, but think nobody should be forced to speak Ukrainian in the workplace or in exercising his or her citizenship rights.

While official Ukraine functions in Ukrainian, Russian still rules the world of business and print media.

Knowledge of both languages is also important for following the country’s political life, where a politician may address another in Russian and receive an answer in Ukrainian.

Yet the number of schools using Russian as the language of instruction is rapidly diminishing even in Russian-speaking areas, and higher education is conducted in Ukrainian.

Ukrainian state television only broadcasts in Ukrainian, and the presence of Russian in radio and television is minimal, though many still rely on broadcasts from Russia.

“The national information space should be Ukrainian. This is a key requirement for forming a single nation and for the patriotic education of children and young people,” President Viktor Yushchenko said last December, defending his stance for a fully Ukrainian state television.

Ukrainian language has also made an important breakthrough in cinemas since the country’s constitutional court announced all foreign films, including Russian ones, must be dubbed or subtitled into Ukrainian.

Moscow issued statements expressing concern over the state of Russian language in Ukraine, accusing Kiev in March of flouting the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, adopted by the 47-nation Council of Europe in 1992.

However, there are few instances of individual citizens claiming to have been discriminated on the basis of their language.

“The language situation in Ukraine is much more advertised than it is important. It is the easiest and hottest topic in politics, and it is very easy to brainwash people with stories of language discrimination and dying cultures,” Maksym Ivanyna, a fellow at Regensburg University in Germany with research experience in language issues told IPS.

The war between Russian and Ukrainian has seen many small battles at the regional level, with many of the mostly Russian speaking regions granting Russian the status of regional language.

Kiev has dubbed these decisions “language separatism”, and they were challenged in regional courts by people who believe making Russian official poses a threat to Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

A 1995 survey showed the population of Ukraine was split in almost equal thirds between Ukrainian, Russian, or mixed speakers, but since then the proportion of Ukrainian speakers has been on the increase.

“The Ukrainian language is gaining more popularity since recently, especially in cities in Central Ukraine,” Ivanyna told IPS.

Ukrainian has become a fashionable ideological marker, and it is not rare to find youngsters who call themselves Ukrainian speakers even though they hail from Russian speaking families.

Surveys by the Kiev International Sociology Institute found that there are many Ukrainians who speak Russian at home but declare Ukrainian as their native language.

The progressing Ukrainianisation of the country has left many Russian speakers uncomfortable, but for several decades it was Ukrainians who complained of language discrimination, and only slowly has the Slavic language begun to erase the ‘peasant language’ tag.

Ivanyna, a Western Ukrainian, feels Ukrainian still needs space to grow. “Ukrainian is the only official language and should remain so, it should gain more popularity in order to restore historical justice,” he told IPS.

Russian settlers have been moving into today’s Ukraine since the 16th century. The process of industrialisation brought more Russians into Ukrainian cities, which explains the privileged position of Russian in urban centres.

The language of the upper classes became Russian, and especially in the 19th and 20th century Ukrainian was either suppressed or frowned upon.

Under the Soviet Union Ukrainian was allowed but always implicitly treated as a second-rank language behind Russian, the language of the elite.

Nevertheless, it was during the Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev that Ukrainian was recognised as the state language of Ukraine and a decision was made to gradually introduce the language in higher education and state institutions.

With Ukrainian independence in 1991, pro-European and nationalist political elites pushed the goal of a state promoting Ukrainian language, though the political and economic weight of neighbouring Russia always put a lid on possible excesses.

 
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