“I have no desire to become a soldier in this war of words,” Ukraine’s best-known novelist Andrei Kurkov wrote in 2012. He was reacting to the furor over a law instituted by former president Viktor Yanukovych that elevated Russian to the status of a regional language in Ukraine.
Kurkov writes mainly in Russian but was a supporter of the Maidan protests of 2013 that overthrow Yanukovych and turned Ukraine towards Europe. His was a plea to keep language politics out of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv.
Unfortunately that plea is unheard and Ukraine’s language wars are restarting. A bill requiring 75 percent of national television broadcasts to be in Ukrainian has just been passed by the Rada. It follows a very unpopular move by President Poroshenko to ban Russian-language social media websites, such as Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.
Next up for discussion is draft legislation that seeks to ensure “the functioning and use of Ukrainian as a state language in all spheres of public life in the whole territory of Ukraine.”
At first glance, this may look uncontroversial. Of course, the Ukrainian language, which spent decades as the poor cousin of Russian in its own country, needs to be promoted and supported. But there is a lot of devil in the detail in terms of how this should happen. Many Ukrainian citizens who are not necessarily devotees of Vladimir Putin or the Russian state and regard themselves as Ukrainian patriots are still bilingual or prefer Russian to Ukrainian. These people will regard any attempt to make them give up speaking their native language as an attack on their fundamental rights.
The draft law on the state language, if passed, would explicitly draw new battle lines in Ukraine on the basis of nationality. Article 8 contains the rather disturbing formulation of “citizens of Ukraine whose ethnic origin is not Ukrainian.” Article 51 proposes the somewhat sinister institution of a “control commission” whose “language inspectors” would monitor whether Ukrainian was being used in public offices, school classrooms, and university lecture halls and would see those who were caught using Russian punished by law.
Two of the law’s main initiators—parliamentarians who have progressive profiles on a number of other issues, Oksana Servit of the Samopomich group and Hanna Hopko, who is chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—have said that widespread usage of the Russian language undermines Ukrainian statehood. Another member of parliament, Ivan Krulko from the Batkivshchyna faction, has argued that “it is necessary for the development of the country, which should break away from Russia.”
But maybe the opposite is true. Currently, many Ukrainian teachers and professors switch back and forth from Ukrainian to Russian, depending on the language preferences of their students or the requests of parents. It is an open secret in Kyiv that the city has very few formal Russian-language schools but many classes are conducted in Russian when parents ask for it informally.
This informal bilingualism, where Ukrainian remains the formal language of the state but Russian gets used on an ad hoc basis, has facilitated a clear trend whereby Ukrainian is becoming more and more the default language of the country. A poll conducted in May 2015 showed that almost 60 percent of the population prefer to speak Ukrainian as their language of everyday communication, a much higher number than two decades ago.
If the truce in the language war is now over, Moscow is certainly ready to restart its side of the conflict. Any moves to formally discriminate against Russian language use gets such wide coverage in Russia that it verges on the hysterical. In February 2014, a brief attempt by the Rada to repeal the Yanukovych-era language law helped provide cover for the Russian narrative for the annexation of Crimea shortly afterwards. With characteristic hyperbole, one Russian parliamentarian, Frants Klintsevich, called the new draft bill a case of “linguistic genocide.”
When I visited Kyiv and Odessa in early May, most people who I sounded out about the new draft law responded with weary black humor. The most common sentiment was that Ukrainian politicians resort to language battles to mobilize their core supporters and to disguise their lack of policies on the issues that really concern the public, like corruption and economic inequality.
One university lecturer, who is paid 150 euros a month, told me she manages to make the current arrangements work, switching back and forth between Ukrainian and Russian to accommodate the wishes and knowledge of her students. But she said that if “language inspectors” were ever instituted, her professional life would become needlessly much harder and she would have less time for the real educational challenges she faces. “Give us a normal salary and we will teach in Chinese!” she said.