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Ukrainian-Russian relations to benefit from law on status of Russian language

July 04, 2012, 16:56 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Ukrainian parliament’s motion to endorse a bill raising the status of the Russian language in Ukraine to a higher level proceeded, in the first place, from the electoral interests of the ruling party but whatever its underlying reasons might be, Ukraine as a state and its relations with Russian in particular will certainly benefit from this document, experts say.

They make a reservation, though, pointing out the fact that Russian has received the status of a regional language, not the state one as the Regions Party promised earlier.

Along with this, it is also true that the opposition, which declares its ostensibly pro-European orientation in parallel with reluctance to be committed to the principles of Europe’s language policy, has challenged the law.

Tuesday, July 3, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed a law reaffirming the status of Ukrainian as the sole state language of the country but simultaneously expanding the rights of ethnic minority languages.

The document formally abides by the provisions of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and it enables any ethnic minority constituting ten and more percent of the population of an administrative entity to introduce its language as a regional one through the local agencies of power.

This means that the bill puts another eighteen languages on a par with Ukrainian at a local level. Once the local councils endorse changes in their status, the speakers of these tongues will be able to use them unrestrictedly in everyday communications, in court litigations, in the education processes, and in interactions of all types with the agencies of state power.

After the bill is signed into law, Russian will become a regional language in thirteen of Ukraine’s twenty-seven regions – in the eastern and southern parts country, the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, in the capital Kiev, and in the historical naval city of Sevastopol.

Simultaneously, Crimean Tatar will become a regional language in the Crimea, Hungarian – in the Trans-Carpathian /sub-Carpathian/ region, and Romanian – in the Chernovtsi /Cernauti/ region.

President Viktor Yanukovich and the Region’s Party said during the election campaign of 2012 they would make every effort to secure the status of a second state language for Russian. However, Yanukovich had to admit after the election his idea did not have enough supporters in the Rada and this made the passing of an appropriate bill problematic.

That is why the issue was diverted to giving Russian the status of a regional language.

Various sociological research works show that Russia is spoken by up to 82% of Ukraine’s population and 14,273,000 citizens of the country, or 29.6% of the total population called it a native tongue in the last census.

Ukraine’s political opposition has been protesting vociferously against the idea of raising the status of the Russian language. It claims this will only drive a wedge between the Ukrainian-speakers and the Russian-speakers still deeper and will restrict the sphere of application of the Ukrainian language.

The Verkhovna Rada passed the bill at a moment when no one expected this move. The language issue was not on the agenda of the Rada’s activity for the day and that is why reporters left the session house back in the morning.

A total of 248 MPs voted in favor of the bill, while the minimum number of votes necessary for the endorsement of documents is 226. The very procedure of voting was marked by the atmosphere of a scandal, as tensions between the parliamentary factions spilt over into a brawl initiated by the opposition.

Right after the closure of the session, the oppositionists started making claims about procedural violations, since the bill was adopted without a single amendment in spite of the 2,040 remarks they had filed on it.

A group of five MPs representing the rightwing Batkivshchina party, which supports former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, called an indefinite hunger strike.

Analysts indicate that this is far from the first instance of Ukrainian politicians taking up the language problem in the run-up to elections. The language problem is a perfect instrument for mobilizing the friendly electorate, especially if one considers the duration of Ukraine’s conflict around the Russian language.

Ukrainization in the field of language policy picked pace after the ‘orange revolution’ of 2004 that waved the slogans of independence from Moscow and a buildup of Ukrainian self-identity. It gave way to a reverse course, however, after Viktor Yanukovich got the presidential post.

The language problem has loomed large in dozens of electoral campaigns in what concerns the system of manipulations with public consciousness on the part of different political parties seeking to attain their own objectives, Ukrainian political researcher Vladimir Nesmeyanov writes at the news portal. Even Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Timoshenko, who overtly made steps to axe the Russian language and culture, would philander with the electorate in the southern and eastern regions during the election campaigns and promise to lift numerous barriers impeding the use of Russian.

Nesmeyanov says that the Regions Party did not become an exception on this background. It is commonly known that Viktor Yanukovich won by a narrow margin of votes owing to the support of electorate in the country’s South and East, since the voters developed trust in the party’s slogans to make Russian a second state language and to reconsider the anti-Russian foreign policy of the predecessors.

On the eve of the forthcoming election to the Rada, the rating of the Regions Party sank to a very low level and it ventured to fulfill its promise, albeit in a heavily slashed version.

On this background, the parties representing the pro-Western ‘orange’ sector of the political spectrum are unwilling to take due account of Europe’s language policies in spite of the course at European integration.

Nesmeyanov recalls that as many as sixteen mono-ethnic European countries espouse the official multilingualism.

Russian politicians and experts have produced a mixed reaction to the endorsement of the bill. “This step will bring our two fraternal peoples still close together and will enable millions of fellow-Russians in Ukraine to make a sigh of relief,” said Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the State Duma’s committee for relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Vladimir Zharikhin, a deputy director of the Institute of the CIS told the Nezavissimaya Gazeta daily that the apprehensions of the ardent champions of Ukrainian independence are groundless, since Ukrainian remains the state language of the country in strict compliance with the Constitution.

Zharikhin believes Ukraine does need a legislative definition of the Russian language status: “They the printed media that come out in Russian but television programs in this language are banned and radio broadcasting is heavily limited. Advertising in Russian is banned, too.”

He also says that trilingual documentation formalities have long come into practice in the Crimea, which is an autonomous republic. Official documents there are published in three languages – Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean Tatar – and Ukrainian statehood is not damaged by the fact in any way.

“That’s a great victory for everyone who speaks out in favor of stronger Russian-Ukrainian relations, since it is one of the issues that was a factor fanning the tensions between the two countries,” says Dr Alexei Vlassov, the director of the Center for Information and Analysis of the Processes in the Post-Soviet Space.

He thinks the new law will have an encouraging effect on the informational field of the post-Soviet space.

Moscow, July 4