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5 June, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

Russification Redux?

A confrontation over language legislation proposed by the ruling party is unfolding in Ukraine.

On 24 May, opposition MPs prevented the parliament from considering the Draft Law On the Basics of State Language Policy sponsored by Vadym Kolesnichenko, a notorious openly anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian MP, and Serhiy Kivalov, ex-Chair of the Central Electoral Commission often blamed for the rigged 2004 presidential election that sparked the Orange Revolution.  

The bill’s sponsors insist that their only priority is to protect the languages of ethnic minorities whose rights are allegedly discriminated against. The MPs also claim that they drafted the bill in order to meet the requirements of the previously ratified European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Yet, both the OSCE and the Venice Commission have criticized the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov sponsored language initiative. In a letter to the Verkhovna Rada, Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and Knut Vollebaek, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, argued that the bill could be counterproductive in stabilizing Ukrainian society, serving to increase rather than relieve ethnic and linguistic tensions and aggravate the existing societal divide. Having analyzed the bill, the Venice Commission noted that it is poorly balanced because it strengthens the positions of the Russian language disproportionately while entailing no measures to confirm the role of Ukrainian as a state language or properly protect other regional and minority languages.

Some MPs from parties in coalition with the Party of Regions, particularly Volodymyr Lytvyn’s People’s Party, and Reforms for the Future, a group of crossovers from the opposition that joined the ruling coalition in 2010, agree with the opinion of the OSCE and the Venice Commission. The parties supporting amendments to the language law, including Viktor Yanukovych and Mykola Azarov’s Party of Regions and the Communist Party of Ukraine, their coalition ally, gained only 39.8% in the last parliamentary election in 2007, and ended up with 202 out of 450 seats, forming a majority only after 20 MPs from Volodymyr Lytvyn’s People’s Party and a few dozen crossovers from the opposition joined them. Both groups publicly claim that they will not vote for the language law sponsored by the Party of Regions, yet they may eventually fail to resist pressure from the Presidential Administration and its substantial “powers of persuasion.”

If passed, the bill will put not only the Ukrainian language, but Ukraine’s sovereignty and European choice, at risk. Unlike the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, it does not focus on disappearing languages that need protection. Instead, it prioritizes the Russian language that, supported by Ukraine’s post-colonial environment, still dominates in some oblasts and spheres of life. Another important argument is that the expansion of the Russian language and the influence of the Kremlin play key roles in the concept of the Russian World currently promoted by the Russian government. If passed, the bill would make Russian an official language in 13 out of 27 oblasts where the share of Russian speakers exceeds 10%, including Kyiv. With Russian media expansion intensifying alongside Vladimir Putin’s intention to revive the USSR in the Eurasian Union, the bill’s provisions canceling the effective quotas for the use of Ukrainian in broadcasting, film distribution, advertising and so on, are especially dangerous.

A conflict between the Party of Regions and opposition MPs disrupted the session in which the parliament was to consider the amendments, yet the party in power remains unwilling to make any concessions. It plans to submit the bill for consideration again in the next plenary session beginning on 5 June. They see this as a step toward winning the support of pro-Russian voters before the October parliamentary election as the popularity of Viktor Yanukovuch and the Party of Regions plummets.


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