“Language dispute in Ukraine – and its exploitation by politicians”

“The new language act in Ukraine is based on European principles. We used the guidelines of OSCE as an example.” With these words Vadym Kolesnichenko, a member from the Ukrainian parliament, describes the language act of the government party that will have to provide protection for regional and minority languages.

When the act was adopted by the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, at the end of the month, the reactions were strong: violent protests and hunger strikes. The protesters warned against “Russification” of Ukraine. The Russian-speaking minority accounts for about a third of the population.

At first sight it seems very positive for the 46 million people strong country with its multiethnic composition that the various minorities and regional languages will acquire more rights, given to them by the legislator. Especially in a country that is not foremost known for its human rights and minority rights record (see e.g. the discussion about the former prime-minister Yulia Tymoshenko).

Ukraine, a multiethnic state
       Ukrainian: 31,100,000 (1993)
       Russian: 11,300,000
       Polish: 1,140,000
       Eastern Yiddish: 634,000
       Rusyn: 560,000
       Belarusan: 440,000
       Crimean Tatar: 260,000
       Romanian: 250,000
       Bulgarian: 234,000
       Hungarian: 176,000
       Armenian: 99,900
       Urum: 95,000
       Tatar: 90,500
       North Azerbaijani: 45,200
       German: 38,000
       Jakati: 29,300
       Georgian: 24,000
       Czech: 21,000
       Erzya: 19,000
       Northern Uzbek: 10,600
       Kazakh: 7,560
       Greek: 7,210 (1970)
       Serbian: 5,000
       Tosk Albanian: 5,000
       Osetin: 4,550
       Bashkort: 3,670
       Latvian: 2,600
       Tajiki: 2,220
       Lezgi: 1,710
       Karaim: 1,010
       Abkhaz: 950
       Dargwa: 630
       Lak: 570

But what looks good at first sight, did not just cause violent protests in Kiev, but also made the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the OSCE, Knut Vollebaek, decide to visit Ukraine immediately. His words sound not very enthusiatic, rather cautionary instead:

But why is the exponent of “silent diplomacy” from The Hague warning about an act, which “actually” is based on principles (and which it also proclaims) that he himself advocates?

In Ukraine we see the perfect example of how quickly minorities and language communities can become a plaything of political powers and interests.

As many political and independent observers notice, the act should namely be considered as part of the upcoming election campaign in this politically divided country. The east is not only linguistically but also economically strongly oriented to Russia and is the power base of the current president, Viktor Yanukovich. In this region, people of course agree to the initiative to strengthen the Russian language. The president, who lost part of his popular appeal, not only wants to attend to his loyal voters in the east, but also to start a polarised election campaign, because he thinks that will give him the best chances at the elections in October.

The Ukrainian-speaking inhabitants of the country are especially worried about the potential linguistic and political dominance of the “Russians”. The conflict between east and west is an old controversy and the west is regarded as more leaning towards the European Union – although such categorical statements must be taken with caution.

The example of the language act in Kiev shows how fast minorities can become the playthings of politicians and that the whole discussion is no longer about their rights anymore. No one cares for the real problems and challenges of the regional and minority languages – everyone is focused on the Russian-Ukrainian antagonism. (also in the European news coverage).

In case those in power in Ukraine want to do something for their minorities and language diversity (as they happily say they want to do with their act and their reference to European standards) and not are instigating a polarised election instead, they should take the two latest monitoring reports of the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention and the Expert Committee of the Language Charter from the Council of Europe to heart. Ukraine has a lot to work on:

Yesterday, 8 August 2008, Vadym Kolesnichenko announced that he thinks that the most important person in the state, president Viktor Yanukovich, will soon sign the act and make it come into force. What consequences this will have is contested amongst experts as well – but no one really thinks that the situation of the many minorities and languages will seriously improve.


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