For a long time, I refused to write about the language issue in Ukraine. I simply did not see the point. For a Ukrainian born in a Russian-speaking family in Kyiv, the line was clear. I lived in Ukraine where the only official language was Ukrainian. For years, I enjoyed my society’s tolerance—I could use Russian with my friends and family. However, from kindergarten to the workplace I spoke Ukrainian.
I knew that Ukrainian would be the more prominent language in my life and I wanted it this way. As many of my fellow citizens, I enjoyed the silent Ukrainianization of the late 1990s, when public services began switching to the country’s official language. As with many Russian-speakers, Ukrainian became a growing part of my identity particularly following the Orange revolution in 2004-2005.
So what went wrong? Why am I writing about this issue now? Because the Ukrainian language may ultimately cease to exist. It will not happen overnight but it may well happen in a mere decade. The new language law adopted by the parliament and signed by the president this summer may limit the use of Ukrainian to the west of the country and the kitchens of some in the centre and east. It may also strengthen the split between the country’s east and west.
This time bomb against the Ukrainian language was not placed yesterday. The deeds of the previous administration—primarily those of president Yushchenko—pushed the wrong buttons. Although they had the right goals in mind, the administration used the wrong methods and pushed for rather aggressive Ukrainianization. An increase in the number of Ukrainian-speakers did not happen because of these methods, but despite of them.
The current administration has simply swung the pendulum in the other direction. It adopted a law that, over an extended period, will provoke the serious decline of the Ukrainian language. The law does not directly attack the language. However, it allows minority groups to introduce their languages in regions where they represent more than 10 percent of the population. This would mean the adoption of regional languages in about 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions. With Ukraine’s approximately two dozen national minority groups, this would imply significant translation costs and changes would also have to be made to the education system, which may further downgrade the study of Ukrainian in a significant part of the country.
Today, there are various explanations of the logic behind this law. The president and his party claim they simply wanted to follow European principles by protecting the rights of minorities. The opponents of the law see in it the strengthening of the Russian language, and therefore an attack on Ukrainian. Some say it was Kyiv’s attempt to please Russia in order to get cheaper gas, while others see it as the president delivering on at least one electoral promise before the October parliamentary elections.
While protecting the rights of minorities is an important task for the government, the protection of the country’s official language remains equally important. The new law, however, is first and foremost about radicalizing the country before the elections by pitting Ukrainian speakers in the west and center of the country against the largely Russian-speaking population in the east and south. Luckily, the president and his team have failed to achieve this.
However, some initial results raise concerns. A number of southern and eastern Ukrainian cities—Zaporizhia, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Odessa, Sevastopol, and Luhansk—have already recognized Russian as a regional language. More cities in the east are likely to follow suit, despite the fact that it does not necessarily reflect their populations’ needs. The economic survival of their families, not the language issue, is the biggest problem these people face.
The law caused havoc in western Ukraine, with a number of oblasts controlled by the opposition party refusing to implement it. In addition, a clear bias in favor of Russian is becoming apparent, as many other minority languages, such as Hungarian, will not be considered for regional implementation according to the administration.
It is just the beginning of the language saga. A lot may change after parliamentary elections in October. If the current administration secures enough votes in the next parliament, the language issue may well be put on the shelf. If the elections do not bring the expected result, the issue may be pushed further. However, the damage is done and tomorrow’s Ukraine will have to deal with it.