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31 August, 2012  ▪  Oles Oleksiyenko

The Only “Regional Language”

Recent developments signal that the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov language law is aimed at the renewed Russification of all Ukrainians regardless of their ethnic backgrounds

The regional language has been officially adopted in oblasts where the Party of Regions (PR) has won recent national and local elections and holds a majority in local and city councils. These include the Oblast Councils of Odesa, Mykolayiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts, and the City Councils of Odesa, Sevastopol, Kharkiv, Krasnyi Luch and Pervomaisk in Luhansk Oblast, and Ismail City Council in Odesa Oblast.

The regional status was only granted to the Russian language in each and every of the abovementioned oblasts and cities. This contradicts its sponsors’ declarations that the law would comply with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. No language other than Russian, including those that are truly endangered and need protection, has ever received official protection. First Deputy Head of the PR faction in the parliament Mykhailo Chechetov explained his party’s reasoning, stating, “46 million people understand two languages – Russian and Ukrainian. Not Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian, Jewish—Yiddish or Hebrew or whatever you say. Only a handful of people understand those languages. We’re talking about two languages here that the whole nation understands.”  

This standpoint is prevails among local authorities in majority PR districts and is shared by the country’s leaders, suggesting that the language law is aimed at reviving Russification rather than protecting endangered languages. For instance, Ismail’s City Council ruled to make Russian an official regional language while refusing to grant this status to Bulgarian, despite the fact that the local Bulgarian minority amounts to more than the necessary 10% based on the latest census. Ismail Mayor Andriy Abramchenko offered a typical soviet-style comment: “having the Russian language as the language of communication for Ismail’s more than 80 different ethnic groups” is enough. Andriy Fedoruk, Head of the Donetsk Oblast Council, said that other city councils may follow suit and try to introduce other regional languages – Greek, for instance – yet they should think twice about where they will get the money to pay for the initiative.

Surprisingly, representatives of minorities within the PR who could have used the party’s influence to promote the interests of their ethnic groups are actually making excuses for the party, a situation that parallels that of minorities in the Communist Party of the USSR. They insist that there is no need to secure special status for the languages of their ethnic groups within the PR because they were well off before the law. For instance, Ivan Popescu, a PR member and representative of the Romanian community in Bukovyna, Western Ukraine, said that there are already plenty of Romanian schools, and officials and police officers in Romanian ethnic regions spoke the language before the new law was passed. Therefore, they do not need urgent implementation of the language law. However, he failed to address the question of why parliament passed the law in the first place.

Minority languages are now irritating the PR, especially as opposition MPs grow more proactive on their behalf. Opposition MP Hennadiy Moskal has threatened to sue Andriy Kliuyev, Chair of the National Defense and Security Council, for responding in Ukrainian to a request written and filed in the Rusyn minority language. Later, he filed another request to Mykola Azarov in Yiddish, probably to find out whether he, like Mykhailo Chechetov, views Rusyn and Yiddish as languages that ‘just a handful’ of people speak. Now he is continuing the experiment among regional authorities. In turn, the law’s sponsors were forced to drop some of its clauses. For instance, they recommended canceling the requirement to print voting ballots in the languages of different ethnic minorities.

Paradoxically, the only territory in the South where Russia has not yet become an official regional language is Crimea, where the share of ethnic Russians is over 50%. The reason for this actually lies in the PR’s reluctance to provide equal status to the Crimean Tatar language—or even the Ukrainian language—neglected there as a result of Constitutional violations. Until recently, Russian was de facto the only official language and the local authorities were openly unhappy about official correspondence with Kyiv being held in Ukrainian, the only official state language. Crimean Tatars have already shown concern with the fact that the local authorities are backpedalling the implementation of the law. They suspect that the administration will raise the 10% requirement to 15-20% or introduce some other amendments to the law to prevent any language other than Russian from receiving official regional status.  

The language law’s implementation makes it possible to actually impose Russian on Southern and Eastern Ukraine, including the regions of Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and the north of Odesa Oblast which are still largely Ukrainian-speaking despite the long lasting Russification campaigns of the Soviet era. Today, we may be seeing the revival of Russification efforts through well-targeted government policy. As oblast councils introduce Russian as the regional language in their oblasts, they encourage smaller territorial units to do the same. As a result, oblast authorities may begin to demand employees of public entities, companies and organizations to speak the regional language (i.e. Russian) and ignore the requirement to use Ukrainian as the only official state language due to ambiguities in the law.

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