Ukraine’s language problems increasingly exacerbated by Yanukovich’s manoeverings

There is concern, that feeling increasingly isolated, Ukrainian President Victor Yanokovich is resorting to dangerous language politics to reposition the country in the face of mounting criticsm from the European Union for his treatment of former Presidential candidate Yulia Timoshenko. Nicholas Maltby reviews the recent events.

A few days ago the Ukrainian Parliament approved a bill that gives Russian the status of an official language at local and regional governmental levels. The bill maintains that Ukrainian is the only state language, but allows local and regional governments to conduct their affairs in languages spoken by at least 10 percent of their residents. However, the law has not yet been finalised, since the Chairman of Parliament, Volodymyr M. Lytvyn, resigned before it could be fully adopted, which means that the bill cannot receive the necessary ratification that it needs before Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, can sign it as law.

Just over half of the Ukrainian population uses the state language in their daily lives. Russian is spoken widely in the east of the country, where many ethnic Russians were brought over during the Soviet period, in order to work in the Ukraine. Ethnic Russians amount to approximately 17 percent of the Ukrainian population. Yanukovych has his electoral base in that part of the country and is a native Russian speaker himself. But the Russian language is associated with Russian state influence. Ukrainian was restricted, or, in certain forms, banned by a succession of Russian Imperial leaders, including Catherine the Great and Peter I. The Ukrainian constitution states that Ukrainian is the only official state language.

Opponents claim that the bill violates the constitution. The issue of language is central to many Ukrainians sense of sovereignty. In May, the mooted bill caused a brawl between politicians in parliament. On Tuesday night hundreds of people gathered outside Ukraine House in Kyiv to protest the bill. This happened in spite of Kyiv’s court banning protests from the 3rd to the 9th of July. Lawmakers had expected the vote on the bill to take place later in the year. Mr. Lytvyn was not even present for the vote. Leaders of President Yanukovych’s party, the Party of Regions, claimed they had outmanoeuvred the opposition by approving the bill ahead of time. Mikhail Chechetov, the deputy chairman of the Party of Regions, told a Ukrainian newspaper: “Experience the beauty of the game: we handled them [the opponents] as kittens”. Lytvyn said there were “immense violations” in the bill’s approval. He said that the bill was not given the requisite number of readings and that amendments were not duly considered.

The New York Times suggests that the bill could be a sign that Yanukovych is looking east to Russia for alliance, after straining relations with Europe over the jailing of Yulia Tyomoshenko. Yanukovych’s relations with Russia have not been entirely comfortable since he became president. The same article says that there are critics who see the timing of the bill as intended to draw attention away from Tyomoshenko’s incarceration. Critics of the bill say that Yanukovych is trying to ensure support in the eastern and southern parts of the country and fulfil an election pledge in advance of the parliamentary elections later this year.

Last week, the Ukrainian parliament refused to ratify the bill. Instead it adjourned for the summer. Yanukovych has said he will delay signing the law because he is, “interested in the stability of the country”. A survey carried out by the Sociological Company found that 65 percent of those polled believe the bill is PR for Yanukovych and his government. The languages that local governments can now give official status to are: Armenian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, German, Hungarian, Moldovian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Tartar, and Yiddish.

Source: Written for by Nicholas Maltby

photo: Ukrainians protesting against the new language bill in the city of Dniepropetrovsk (picture courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)