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30 March, 2012  ▪  Yurіy Raykhel

The Latvian Referendum as a Model for Ukraine

The status of Russian becomes the most acute problem in countries where Russian-speaking communities are large both in absolute and relative terms.

Most former soviet republics inherited the language issue from the USSR. The status of Russian becomes the most acute problem in countries where Russian-speaking communities are large both in absolute and relative terms. Contributing to this problem are old and recently-created myths and the Kremlin's strategy of informational expansionism. In this strategy, a purely linguistic and cultural issue has become political. Pro-Russian agents promote the language as they vie for a place in the political arena. This applies to the Baltic states, Moldova, Kazakhstan and, to a large extent, Ukraine.

There is one myth that is being instilled and promoted with special persistence – that the right of the Russian-speaking population to use its language is violated and that the current language situation contradicts European standards, particularly with regard to regional languages. At the same time, the content of these standards is consciously ignored or hushed up. There is a telling example in France which has a hard-line one-language policy and at the same time does everything possible to also protect regional languages. The author spoke about this problem in the mayor's office in Strasburg and heard again and again that the French were sorry that Alsatian was essentially disappearing. There are schools and requisite financing, teachers, literature, and university departments. The problem is that there are no students. Parents prefer to send their children directly to French-language education institutions. The same situation is found in Normandy and Brittany. In addition to the dwindling number of speakers, the language is losing its functionality and ability to reflect new realities, and its vocabulary is deteriorating. Sorbian in Germany is in the same predicament.

European norms are aimed at protecting these kinds of languages, most of which are dying. But no-one even thinks of applying them to protect German in Belgium or the Netherlands. The Walloon language in Belgium badly needs to be protected and local authorities are doing their best to help it, and now this nearly-dead language is slowly reviving.

The Russian language dominated in both the tsarist Russian empire and in the USSR. So newly independent countries had to protect and sometimes revive their own national languages. It may well be that without external political intervention, this gradual process, which requires patience and persistence, can lead to peaceful coexistence and a multilingual cultural environment. In the inter-war Western Ukraine, the standard linguistic set of many urban and rural residents, to say nothing of intellectuals in Lviv, consisted of four or five languages. And nothing horrible happened. On the contrary, this gave people many advantages. Even though the policy of Polonisation was a far cry from democratic norms, it paled in comparison to total Russification.

Clearly, no-one will protect the Latvian language if Latvians fail to do so themselves. This is not linguistic discrimination against Russian: if you live in Latvia, you should learn the local language and you may learn others if you want. Somehow those who live in Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine or Moldova and prefer to know only Russian and have no command of the state language, reject this very simple reasoning. The author once spoke with the widow of a soviet general in Riga. She had lived in Latvia for over 25 years and had not learned the local language enough to sustain even a simple conversation. When I asked her why, she said: “We liberated them, so they should speak Russian.” If you follow this “reasoning,” all of Western Europe should speak English exclusively . This would include even Germany, because its western part was freed from the Nazis largely by British and American troops.

Everyone understands that the problem of the status of Russian in the Baltic states and elsewhere is artificial and politically motivated. It has been inspired by Moscow in order to destabilise internal politics. We need to clearly understand that what was tested in Latvia is a possible scenario for Ukraine. The political component can be seen here in its pure condition. However, the Baltic states are, by and large, a branch cut-off to Russia. They joined Europe long ago and will never quit it — something even the most stubborn “collectors of Russian lands” grasp.

Ukraineis different. The country has wasted several opportunities to choose a European path due to the thoughtlessness of its leaders. That is why the Kremlin still has hope of injecting its ideals into its southern neighbour. Just like the old Russian empire, the new one cannot exist without Ukraine. And the Russian language is the most important factor of destabilisation.

The problem with the status of Russian in the Baltic states and elsewhere is artificial and politically motivated.


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