The language bogeyman

11 April 2020, 09:02

Because it’s a powerful weapon, language will remain a fine-tuned instrument in political and geopolitical games for a long time to come. What’s more, not to use such a powerful weapon in a hybrid war would not be smart. Certainly, those who want to destabilize Ukraine will do everything they possibly can to exploit it. While the Zelenskiy administration seems reluctant to be proactive on the issue of language, it could easily find itself forced to be so. Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin forces, who can always find some allies in the presidential faction, are determined to do precisely that with their continuing efforts to play up the language issue.

From their first days in the Verkhovna Rada, MPs in Viktor Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform–Za Zhyttia (OPZZ) registered two bills to change the country’s language policy. The bill to amend the Law “On Education” is intended to prevent switching public schools that still have Russian as the language of instruction to the state language. The bill “On the Use of Languages in Ukraine” would effectively replace the recently passed law on the use of Ukrainian as the state language. Both bills were quietly removed from the legislative agenda once the profile committees reviewed them, only to be replaced by new bills.

The Venice Commission’s judgment about the language law passed by the previous Rada came at the end of 2019 and were quite controversial. Written without understanding the Ukrainian context and in the spirit of obsessive European “concern” and tolerance, the Commission’s conclusions seem made to order to serve Medvedchuk’s interests. According to the EU experts, the law had some problematic elements that needed to be revised. Since it did not specify the rights of minorities, the Commission called for its force to be suspended until a separate law on minorities was passed. On top of that, the Venice experts recommended abolishing or suspending the sanction mechanism.

RELATED ARTICLE: Just the first step

Oddly enough, the Commission also proposed abolishing the provisions “providing for differentiated treatment for the languages of indigenous peoples, the languages of national minorities that are official EU languages, and the languages of national minorities that are not official EU languages.” This seems to be the key point. Ironically, the authors of the language law proposed this instrument to try and fix the imbalance that has allowed the Russian language dominate over the languages of other minorities and stifle their normal development.

Needless to say, the advance team of Russki Mir did not miss this golden opportunity: MP Maksym Buzhanskiy (SN) boasted on social media the following day that he would sponsor a bill to abolish the language law based on the decision of the Venice Commission. This was later withdrawn, apparently thanks to the efforts of fellow SN MP Oleksandr Tkachenko.

But then another bill emerged in its place. In early February, OPZZ MPs Natalia Korolevska and Mykhailo Papiyev registered a resolution to abolish the language law in order to bring Russian back to schools. Korolevska then referred to the Ukrainian language as “a mere formality from the Verkhovna Rada tribune” because, as she put it, everyone spoke Russian in Ukraine anyway. That did not work and the resolution failed.

But that, too, was not the end of the story. On February 18, SN’s Buzhanskiy and OPZZ’s Oleh Voloshyn registered two bills, to amend the law on education and change the Verkhovna Rada Procedure on the Working Language. The goal was the same as in the two previous initiatives: to promote bilingualism under the guise of equal rights. The Rada is currently working on the two bills and will probably dismiss or withdraw them, yet again.

For Kremlin loyalists, however, any outcome will do. They aren’t working towards a result because they know quite well that they won’t get any. They’re working for the sake of the process. What matters to them is making sure that the language issue remains in the spotlight. It’s a tool that can help them speculate, gain voter support or even fuel instability, if need be. And they will feel especially happy if they succeed in shifting language discourse from the national security aspect, where it now is, to the field of human rights and liberal values. That is where they will finally have the chance to really exploit the issue.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his team are reluctant to get involved this issue. They have plenty of more serious problems and no idea on how to deal with those. Yet language issues used in various Kremlin’s narratives to attack Petro Poroshenko during the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Nor did these attacks stop after the election – they just changed course.

Today, critics make fewer disparaging statements, focusing more on “constructive” action. Buzhanskiy attacks the laws on language and education, Andriy Bohdan proposed allowing Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts to speak Russian in exchange for peace when he was Chief-of-Staff, and 25-year-old SN MP Oleksiy Ustenko claims that Russia attacked Ukraine precisely because the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law was canceled on February 23, 2014. This creates an impression that Zelenskiy’s Sluha Narodu Party is actually trying to destabilize the situation and has chosen language as one of the biggest triggers for Ukrainian society.

SN monitors and probes the public mood in Ukraine regularly, sending out different messages, as needed. If there is interest in the language issue, they will play the language card. They just don’t want to provoke conflicts when they don’t need them. The VR Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy hinted at that on March 2, when it advised the Rada against amending the Law on the functioning of Ukrainian as the state language to comply with the Venice Commission’s recommendations until the Constitutional Court decides on their appropriateness. Just a week earlier, Commission’s Chair Tkachenko lamented in an interview with Glavcom that the language law posed many risks for Ukrainian society and for MPs. In order to fix that, he said his committee had begun preparing for a national roundtable on the language issue. 

How necessary is such a debate? Is the situation so fragile that it requires the Rada to re-open a public discussion that could grow into a conflict with the proper orchestration? Not really. Individual conflicts over the language that pop up here and there are not systemic. More than anything, they are the product of an inferiority complex that many Ukrainians have yet to overcome. Conflicts will keep popping up and Ukrainians will find ways to deal with them. They just need time. Roundtables won’t make a difference.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Ukrainian language as a protest

Opinion polls have shown, time and again, that most Ukrainians see language as an important pillar of statehood and do not need a debate on that, whether they speak Ukrainian all the time or not. So any attempts to pick at this wound will not give the desired results. According to a January 2020 poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center, 81% of Ukrainian citizens see the Ukrainian language as an important element of independence, 80% want the country’s leaders and civil servants to speak Ukrainian during working hours, 69% believe that Ukrainian should be the only state language, and 79% believe that the ratio of Ukrainian to other languages in domestic media should be at least 50-50. This is despite the fact that Ukrainians admit that they often use both Russian and Ukrainian in private communication: only 32.4% speak Ukrainian all the time. These are very important numbers. They show that both national self-awareness and a clear understanding that Ukrainian is a critical unifying factor for the country, as well as a weapon in its war for independence are on the rise.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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Roman Malko

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