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Tensions in Ukraine have once again escalated as the country’s Parliament approved a controversial bill that would give the Russian language official status on a regional level. The move, which critics slammed as premeditated and intentionally politicized on the part of the ruling party, doesn’t just highlight Ukraine’s difficult cultural-linguistic divide, but also showcases what experts say is President Viktor Yanukovich’s reckless and clumsy tumble toward authoritarianism.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s national Parliament, approved the bill in a surprise vote on Tuesday, angering opponents who claim the controversial vote was kept quiet and rushed through at the last minute by the ruling Party of Regions in order to minimize resistance to the legislation. Opposition lawmakers decried as unconstitutional the hurried manner in which the vote was held – now somewhat of a recent political pastime in a country that has backtracked on much of its democratic gains since the “Orange Revolution.”
The bill, if signed into law by Yanukovich, would pave the way for Russian to become an official regional language in about half of the country’s 27 regions. Opponents argue that it will simply diminish the Ukrainian language and do little else, since Russian is already heavily predominant in many urban, industrial centers – even while Ukrainian remains the only state language. Although the law covers all minority languages, including Belarusian, Polish and Crimean Tatar, among others, critics also say it is aimed specifically at granting Russian extra leverage, given the small number of other minorities.
Ukraine’s language policy, as it stands today, is ambiguous enough. Experts point to the Soviet-era “Law on Languages,” adopted in 1989, as well as the 1996 Ukrainian Constitution, as evidence: while they both claim Ukrainian as the sole official language, few levers exist to protect it alongside the extremely widespread use of Russian, which about 50 percent of Ukrainians say is their primary language. “This absence has resulted in a de-facto laissez-faire policy,” wrote leading Ukrainian political expert Mykola Riabchuk in openDemocracy in late June. “The language law has been applied, like many other laws in Ukraine, arbitrarily, selectively, and in a highly opportunistic manner.”
The language issue has plagued independent Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Language not only divides Ukraine linguistically, but also in a cultural sense, often carving citizens into two main camps: those who speak Russian and identify less with the nation than with the state – or who altogether prefer a certain closeness with Russian culture – and those who consider the Ukrainian language to be the cornerstone of a unique national culture. And then, of course, there are the ethnic Russians, who make up about 17 percent of the population.
So pervasive is the issue that debates on the matter have often broken out into full-fledged brawls: on Wednesday riot police struggled to contain hundreds of protesters in downtown Kiev; on Tuesday the lawmakers themselves scuffled on the Parliament floor shortly after the Party of Regions pushed the bill through.
But to make matters worse, opposition politicians and experts alike say Yanukovich is only intensifying the conflict by politicizing it. Indeed, his pledge to make Russian the second state language was among his most prominent campaign promises in the lead-up to his 2010 election. Yet he waited until several months before the planned October parliamentary elections, and an entire two years after taking office, to act on it. Analysts said the law is meant to scrape together waning support from his electoral base in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions.
“The normal cycle in the past has been that these kinds of things have been promised around election time and then forgotten, whereas by changing the law before the election, this time something is done,” said Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The unknown quantity with the Russian-speaking electorate has always been progressive disillusion about that cycle of promises and non-delivery – and hence this law.”
This sense of disillusionment has given the Yanukovich regime something to think about in recent months. It is embattled on both fronts: by the more nationally conscious central and western regions for its perceived anti-Ukrainian bent, and by its base electorate in the south and east for either its failure to perform or, ironically, for the few concrete economic policies that have actually had a negative effect (cutting social payments or instating a draconian tax code, for example). Now, according to a recent poll by the respected Razumkov Center think tank, the Party of Regions has been replaced by imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko’s Fatherland Party as the most popular in Ukraine.
All the regime has to rely on to stay in power, Wilson said, are distracting tricks such as the language law and the classic, post-Soviet mix of PR and administrative resources – tools that may or may not help scrape together a plurality in Parliament. But, he added, “They don’t care much about the long-term consequences.”
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