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.
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In Ukraine, the unfolding drama over the new language bill elevating the status of Russian has reignited the age-old debates over language, culture, history, and even independence. Critics say the bill would erode the Ukrainian language and culture entirely, thereby exposing the fledgling country to a greater dose of Russian influence. Proponents argue that recognizing the “minority language” is the right – and the “European” – thing to do, especially in a country where nationalists are keen on deemphasizing Ukraine’s historical link with Russia. But is there a middle ground?
The scenes broadcast around the world of rioting, swirling tear gas and soaring batons amidst crowds of protesters in downtown Kiev earlier this week only reinforced the notion that language is a painful issue in Ukraine. At first glance, one would be inclined to assume that Ukraine is still bitterly divided by its historical experience: the western Ukrainian-speaking regions, with little historical exposure to Russia, versus the Russian-speaking east, which for long had been under Russian tutelage throughout its history.
In the Kiev protests, the message was clear: the Ukrainian language and culture, already embattled by a lack of state enforcement, is under attack. The placards and slogans denounced the Viktor Yanukovych regime’s blatant attempt to score votes by playing the “language card” and underscoring the divisions. And to many, it’s an issue that reaches far above politics and history and perhaps raises the biggest question of Ukraine’s short experience with independence: Europe or Russia? Some analysts see the debate over language as a debate over Ukraine’s very existence as an independent country.
"State officialdom is currently the only sphere in which many people come into contact with Ukrainian, and if we take that away then the language is in trouble," Volodymyr Kulyk, a Ukrainian political researcher, told The Independent shortly after the Verkhovna Rada passed the bill. "Given the pressures on Ukraine from Moscow to integrate, if we lose our language and identity, after some time it might be impossible to keep the two countries separate."
Meanwhile, around 50 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian and 17 percent of the country’s population is made up of ethnic Russians. They have bemoaned the lack of official respect toward their own language. They say that steady “Ukrainization,” which has passed through different phases under various Ukrainian presidents, has attempted to negate the historical ties between Russia and most of Ukraine and morph the country into a largely mono-ethnic state. Other observers said Russian-speakers had been taken by surprise by Ukraine’s post-Soviet march toward nationhood.
“About 50 percent of the people living in Ukraine want their children to have a chance to get an education in Russian, to pass exams in Russian, so [they think] ‘Why not make it a regional language in places where these people make a substantial part of the population?’” said Dmitry Babich, a Russian political analyst. He added that a surge in nationalist sentiment has also played a role in sparking concern among Russian-speakers in Ukraine: “Little by little, Ukrainian nationalism revealed not the prettiest of faces, especially in recent years.”
It’s a war, it would seem, of self-defense. Ukrainian-speakers, eager to seize the opportunity to develop and institutionalize their long embattled language and culture, fear that any official recognition of Russian – already the de facto second language – will keep them pegged as “little Russians” devoid of a distinct identity. Russian-speakers, ironically, fear much the same thing: that their culture, in many ways closely tied with that of Russia’s, is being denied to them.
History, as it so often does in the former Soviet Union, plays a central role. Starting with the 19th century, the two conventional sides of Ukraine had been in different universes. Central and Eastern Ukraine had been annexed by the Russian Empire, where Ukrainian language, literature and culture were regularly banned. Western Ukraine, for its part, remained under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which periodically allowed the flourishing, if somewhat limited, of Ukrainian culture. The Soviet Union didn’t reach the west until 1940, where it was immediately met with near-universal resistance from a self-aware Ukrainian population, whereas the east largely accepted its rule. And so history produces the broad cleavages at work today: east versus west, European versus Russian, and Ukrainian versus Soviet.
Yet curiously, given the historical differences and palpable tensions, Ukraine never experienced the sort of violent ethnic conflict that erupted in so many other former Soviet territories. As it emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, some observers warned that the country faced the very real possibility of splitting along ethnic lines – again, roughly east versus west. And Crimea, home to a predominantly Russian population, narrowly avoided a messy separation. But after two decades, Ukraine has escaped the dangerous grips of open ethnic conflict, and the impassioned debate over language and culture – and, indeed, independence – has instead remained just that.
Some say things may not be as complicated as it seems, such as with the strictly “east versus west” approach often employed to explain Ukraine’s apparent identity crisis. According to Serhiy Taran, director of the Kiev-based International Democracy Institute, the deep schism is largely a myth. Taran instead points to a split over the importance of language, statehood, culture and ideology as salient political issues.
“One part of Ukraine does care about the ideological question of identity, like language, religion, European integration, national statehood – that is the west of Ukraine,” he said. “But the east practically doesn’t care about these questions. They care about social issues, like the economy and social security, basically the legacy of the Soviet system. Then central Ukraine, which cares much more about national identity than the eastern Ukraine, also thinks about social questions."
But because language is so thoroughly associated with identity in Ukraine, it raises another question: who is – or isn’t – a patriot? As Ukraine has developed into its own throughout recent years, the Ukrainian language has become closely tied to a feeling of national pride. In other words, from the conventional pro-Ukrainian point of view, if you don’t speak Ukrainian – you’re not a patriot. Yet according to Susan Vdovichenko, a researcher on linguistic policy, there may be differing versions of patriotism that aren’t defined exclusively by language.
“Because almost everyone [in Ukraine] is fully bilingual and can communicate in both languages, it often means that some people choose to speak Ukrainian because they believe that shows they’re patriotic,” Vdovichenko, a professor at Washington and Jefferson College, said. “But on the other hand, not speaking Ukrainian doesn’t mean that you’re not patriotic.” She added: “How you speak your words has nothing to do with patriotism – it’s just how you communicate.”
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