Linguistic Pluralism the Right Path for Ukraine

September 14, 2012
Anthony T. Salvia, Executive Director, AIU

Last August 8th, President Viktor Yanukovich put his signature to Ukraine's new language law, which allows languages other than Ukrainian that are spoken by at least 10% of the local population as a native tongue to be accorded official status at the regional level.

In short order, a plethora of regional and municipal administrations -- in the regions of Dnepropetrovsk Donetsk, Lugansk, Odessa and Zaporozhia, and the municipalities of Kharkov, Kherson, Nikolaev and Sevastopol' -- conferred official recognition on the dominant local language -- Russian.

Much of the reaction to the new law has been expressed in the hysterical key so typical of Ukrainian politics: The new law represents a betrayal of a Ukrainian Ukraine, a sell-out to the Russian speaking regions -- indeed to Russia herself, and a radical attempt to redefine the basis of Ukrainian statehood and society.

Surely these reactions are over-the-top. The regions and municipalities mentioned above have been Russian-speaking since Ukraine achieved independence (and long before). The law does not, and cannot make them more Russian-speaking than they already are, and will certainly not make predominately Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country any less Ukrainian-speaking.

Far from undermining national unity, the new law tends to solidify Ukrainian statehood by giving the Russian-speaking regions a new stake in the success of independent Ukraine.

Clearly, what some proponents of a Ukrainian-speaking Ukraine fear about the law -- as moderate as it is -- is that it may torpedo their project of extirpating Russian-language-use gradually, by osmosis if you will, by denying it any official recognition anywhere in the country.

How odd that the "Westernizers" opt for coercive language policies that would tend to make the nation monolingual (Ukrainian-speaking) in violation of regional rights and prerogatives (and, thereby, liberal, European standards), whereas "Russophile" elements base their policy on the European Union's framework for recognition of regional language rights. Thus, curiously, Yanukovich and the PoR have struck a blow for Western values in their sponsorship of the language law, whereas the opposition, in opposing this essentially liberal measure, have taken on a distinctly Sovietophile hue.

Yanukovich appears moderate and liberal in another sense as well: in taking on the political risk of signing the legislation into law, he has upheld the principle of democratic accountability. He promised to protect Russian-language rights while campaigning for the presidency in 2010; he has delivered on that promise. I do not mean to suggest that Yanukovich is a paragon of democratic virtue, and, certainly, the manner in which this legislation was railroaded through the Rada is cause for concern (although such railroading is par for the course in the US Congress), nevertheless, it would be churlish not to give credit where credit is due. Nothing strengthens confidence in democratic rule so much as elected leaders doing what they promised to do when they were campaigning for office (it happens too seldom).

Was this law a cynical ploy to motivate Yanukovich's supporters in the southern and eastern parts of the country to turn out for the parliamentary election next month? Quite likely. That's standard operating procedure in a robust democracy. Look after your base; do what they elected you to do.

Far from representing a radical step, the new language law is actually fairly moderate in design and likely impact. Yanukovich had promised in his campaign for the presidency full recognition of Russian as the second official language of the Ukrainian state. In view of the fact that Ukraine is clearly a bilingual country, his campaign promise to confer official status on both languages makes perfect sense, and should remain a policy objective.

Taking Europe as our standard, Finland, with a Swedish-speaking population confined to Helsinki and a few coastal regions and constituting less than 5% of the population, nevertheless confers official status on Swedish, along, of course, with Finnish. All street and traffic signs are in both languages. All Finnish students are required to study Swedish in school. There are drawbacks to this policy, but it does entail a certain generosity towards a small minority of Finland's erstwhile overlords.

Far more than 5% of Ukrainians have native Russian. Ukraine is effectively bi-lingual. Ukrainian law should recognize this reality. Western critics who object to linguistic pluralism in Ukraine are playing their usual game of enlisting Ukraine as a club with which to beat Russia.