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20 May, 2014  ▪  Volodymyr Vasylenko

A Dangerous Compromise

If Ukraine’s top officials are unable to adequately assess the fatal outcome of their efforts in compromise seeking with Russia for Ukraine, they have no right to head the country. If they do realize the danger of the linguistic concession they are about to make, they should be treated as actors in the Russian cultural and language expansion in Ukraine who intentionally undermine its constitutional order and national statehood

Russia’s persistent yet ungrounded demands to make Russian the second state language in Ukraine continue to accompany its military aggression here. Moreover, Russian leadership has attempted to get Western countries involved in making Ukraine cede to these demands.

In negotiations with the US Secretary of State John Kerry in early March 2014, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a plan to regulate the Ukraine-Russian conflict that would be ruinous for Ukraine’s unity and statehood if implemented. The demand to recognize Russian as the second state language in Ukraine was one of its points. Later, Lavrov’s plan was outlined in the March 17 statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry proposing to set up an international “support group” to mediate in the crisis. Among other things, the statement said that “Russian will be granted the status of the second state language alongside Ukrainian while other languages will have the status envisaged by the European Convention for Regional Languages”.

Western states refused to get involved in the anti-Ukrainian game imposed on them by Russia. Then, the leaders of Russian-instructed and armed separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, echoed by their inspirers and ideological proponents from the tanks of the Communist Party and the Party of Regions, set about articulating Russia’s demand.

Subsequently, Ukraine’s leadership claimed ready to meet Russia’s illegitimate demands halfway. In a joint statement from April 18, 2014, Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and Premier Arseniy Yatseniuk announced that “oblast, city and county councils will be empowered to decide on granting an official status to Russian or other languages spoken by the majority in the given area alongside Ukrainian as the state language in order to accomplish peace and understanding”. “This statement was dictated by the agreement reached at the Geneva meeting between Ukraine, US, Europe and Russia,” Yatseniuk noted. When analyzed closely, however, the document entitled the Joint Geneva Statement on Ukraine from April 17, 2014, adopted by the parties to the Geneva meeting outlines only the initial steps to deescalate tensions, pointing only at the need to implement the constitutional process in Ukraine transparently, accountably, and based on a wide national dialogue that involves representatives of all regions and political forces and accounts for opinions and amendments offered by the community. The document does not hint at, or mention any concrete provisions of the future Constitution of Ukraine, including those concerning the status and the use of languages.

Why, then, do Ukraine’s leaders refer to the Geneva agreements to justify their approach to the language issue? Are they thus trying to make their stance look more convincing, even if it is a strategic concession to Russia, runs counter to the Constitution and undermines Ukraine’s political unity and statehood?

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Article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine defines Ukrainian as the only state language. No other languages have any state or official statuses in Ukraine under the Constitution or Ukrainian laws. The terms “official language” and “state language” are identical. It is for this reason that European constitutions use one of the terms, but never both in one law.

Why Canadian or Swiss experience doesn’t work for Ukraine

The constitutions of Switzerland, Ireland or Malta have the term “national language” alongside their “official language” to refer to one or more languages of their indigenous titular nations. The Constitution and laws of Finland only have the term “national language” which can be interpreted as the official (state) language.

The constitutions of states like Serbia and Croatia have “the language of official use”. Constitutions of some other countries say that the language of the state is the language of the titular nation without qualifying it as official or state language. One example is Article 2 of the French Constitution: “The language of the Republic is French”. Another is Article 3 of the Constitution of Turkey which defines Turkish as the language of the state.

Constitutions of some countries do not mention the status of their language. These include unitary monarchies, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK, the latter having no written Constitution. The population in these countries is mostly comprised of one nation and the use of its language – Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and English respectively as their official (state) language is a tradition that goes deep in history and is an obvious fact.

The authentic version (English and French) of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities use the term “official language” to define the state language. Ruling No10-рп/99 of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine dated December 14, 1999, concerning the interpretation of Article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution (The state language of Ukraine is Ukrainian – Ed.) also deems the “state” and “official” language as identical. Item 3 of the Ruling rationale says that “The state (official) language shall mean the language provided the legal status of a mandatory means of communication in public spheres by the state”.

Thus, making Russian or other languages official ones as suggested by Ukraine’s Acting President Turchynov and Premier Yatseniuk will be equal in status to making them state languages. This runs counter to Article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution. So does their intention to allow oblast, city and county councils decide on the status and use of languages locally, since under Article 92.4 of the Ukrainian Constitution it is the legislation exclusively that regulates that.

The stance of Ukrainian legislators obviously deviates from the practice of most European states whose Constitutions and laws entail the functioning of just one official (state) language in the state. Linguistic situations in countries with multiple official languages, such as Switzerland, Belgium and Finland where two or more state (official) languages are allowed, are completely different from the situation in Ukraine.

The Constitutional Court’s Ruling No10 stresses out that the provision on Ukrainian as the only state language in Ukraine is in Section 1 of the Constitution, the General Provisions. This section fixes the basics of the constitutional order in Ukraine. Therefore, the status of the Ukrainian language as the state language is an integral component of Ukraine’s constitutional order, and an important element in the organization of regulated state governance in all spheres of public life throughout Ukraine. Therefore, Article 156 of the Constitution defines a special procedure for amending Section 1 thereof to enhance protection of Ukraine’s constitutional order from opportunist and arbitrary political decisions.

The status of Ukrainian as the official language is the key framework component of the constitutional order of Ukraine as a European-type national state. Therefore, any attempts to implement other languages as official ones in Ukraine violate the Constitution, thus being an attempt on the constitutional order of Ukraine as an independent, self-sufficient, democratic national state.

READ ALSO: Linguistic Discrimination in Modern Ukraine

Ukrainian language and statehood

Unlike the languages of national minorities, Ukrainian is an element of state building. The use of it in all spheres throughout Ukraine is aimed at ensuring efficient operation of state institutions, control over mechanisms to guarantee national security, and political unity. The status of Ukrainian as the only state language does not deny the rights of national minorities to freely use any other language in social and private life. This is envisaged by Article 10.3 of the Constitution of Ukraine which requires the state to guarantee unrestricted development, use and protection of minority languages. However, minority languages in Ukraine, just like any other country, are not, cannot and should not be state-building elements, therefore they should not claim an official status in the country.

Russians or Russian-speakers in Ukraine face no discrimination for the language they speak whatsoever, so there are no grounds for granting Russian the official status here. In fact, it is the Ukrainian majority that faces linguistic discrimination in many regions of Ukraine. This discrimination manifests itself in the scarcity of Ukrainian-language schools and colleges, media, books or songs on the radio in places where they live.

The argument about the necessary official status for Russian in Ukraine in order to accomplish peace and understanding among its citizens does not hold up either. Despite the ongoing speculation on the language issue by the Russian “fifth column” and pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians, Ukraine has never witnessed any massive civil disorders or unrest on the language ground. Sociological surveys reveal that most Ukrainians are primarily concerned about personal safety, the poor quality of health care, and weak protection of their social, economic and environmental rights, not the status of the Russian language. The introduction of Russian as the official language and ruining the country’s constitutional order cannot improve the quality of life in Eastern Ukraine.

The real goal of Russia’s claims for granting Russian and other languages the official status in Ukraine is to create a legitimate platform for total ousting of Ukrainian from use, not to protect linguistic rights of minorities. It aims at fragmenting Ukraine into linguistically separated regions and splitting the country apart in the future.

Ireland’s historical experience can serve as a warning to Ukraine to that end. At one point, Irish was the official language there, spoken by the entire population. Today, 1,656,790 out of 4mn Irish believe that they can speak Irish since they have studied it in schools. Only 380,000 are fluent in it, and just 20,000 of them list it as their mother tongue – they live in small northeastern parts of the country. This is the result of the radical political changes and tragic events of the 19th century in the Irish history, after it became part of the United Kingdom in 1801 and the Irish Potato Famine of 1846-1851, the disaster that killed 1mn Irish and forced another 2mn to flee the country. The domination of English as the official language in Ireland, coupled with the decline in the numbers of Irish-speakers, ousted their national language from the public sector as well as daily life in most parts of Ireland. After it regained independence in 1921, the Irish authorities have been taking efforts to support the Irish language, yet the striking gap between English and Irish is growing, not shrinking every year. This was caused by the fact that, when the Irish national language and cultural space was destroyed, it passed the critical point after which the country found itself with continuing domination of English in public, daily and private lives. In this situation, even formal recognition of Irish as the first official language and English second does not help. With two state languages throughout Ireland and English dominating there, Irish will face nothing but stagnation.

Ever since Russian was introduced as a state language in Belarus in 1996 alongside Belarusian, the range of spheres where Belarusian was used has shrunk abruptly, pushing it into decline and complete vanishing from the European linguistic map.

Despite massive killings of Ukrainian-speakers in Holodomors (Famines), deportations and wars, and after lengthy Russification when Ukraine was part of the tsarist and Soviet empires, the language situation in Ukraine is still far better compared to Ireland or Belarus. However, the introduction of Russian as the state language will create the ground for the critical decline of Ukrainian to the level of Irish, leading inevitably to the gradual ousting of the language from all public spheres. Ukraine will subsequently turn into the Russified territory, easy prey for the constructors of the Russian World.

Therefore, any concessions to Russia on the status of Ukrainian as the only state language generate a threat to the existence of Ukraine as an independent national state and are unacceptable.

If Ukraine’s top officials are unable to adequately assess the fatal outcome of their efforts in compromise seeking with Russia for Ukraine, they have no right to head the country. If they do realize the danger of the linguistic concession they are about to make, they should be treated as actors in the Russian cultural and language expansion in Ukraine who intentionally undermine its constitutional order and national statehood. 


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