Along with religion and history, language is one of the most sensitive issues for each state, and also one of the most changing: it always reacts to the current state of affairs in a country and in a way reflects the mood and preferences of people. That is especially true for Ukraine, where the status of the two most commonly used languages, Ukrainian and Russian, for decades was a subject of political manipulations and stereotyping.
During Soviet times and after the collapse of the USSR, Russia continued to project the special status of the Russian language in its immediate neighbourhood. Moreover, it has constantly used the category of Russian speakers in countries of the former Soviet Union as a legitimisation of the interference in the domestic affairs of those countries.
Whereas the Russian language was perceived in this region as an international, commonly shared mean of communication, just like English for the rest of the world, Russia perceived Russian speakers as “our people”, who by default belong to the ‘russky mir’, Russian world, and fall within the Kremlin’s perceived protectorate. The language situation in each of the former Soviet states is different, yet Russia has undoubtedly succeeded in one thing: it has successfully shared language stereotypes about the region all around the world. And the world has largely bought them.
The language issue in Ukraine has again sparked many discussions in late spring 2017 after the Verkhovna Rada passed a law setting the 75% Ukrainian language quota for television content. President Petro Poroshenko, who himself has touched a status of Ukrainian language many times, signed the law almost immediately.
Western gloom pours
The internet didn’t wait long with a response: while the law was largely accepted in Ukraine and caused no protests/petitions/demonstrations/nationwide criticism, many Western experts have surprisingly ignored this fact and produced a number of articles forecasting ‘language war’ in Ukraine.
Observing myself how the language issue has changed in Ukraine in the last couple of years, I must say that the majority has drawn the wrong conclusions about the aftermath of this law, based on previous language conflicts in Ukraine, and completely overlooking the changes Ukrainian society has since undergone. Moreover, the slew of language articles was sad proof that many experts still look at Ukraine through Moscow’s glasses.
Undoubtedly, many remember the tragic events right after Maidan when the status of the Russian language and its possible prohibition by “fascists in Kyiv” was used as a means of triggering unrest in the East. The trigger worked all too well, but rather because of the wide non-acceptance of the new Maidan authorities in the region, than the language question alone. Soon the East and the rest of Ukraine learned that the ensuing conflict in the East was far from language- or ethnicity-based, and was rather politically driven by Moscow.
The language preferences of East Ukraine were used against its people. Moreover, Crimea’s invasion and subsequent annexation, justified as protection of the rights of Russian speakers, has undoubtedly affected the language reality in Ukraine, or at least its political context: Russian speakers in Ukraine started manifesting that despite the language they use, they don’t want to belong to the perceived Russian world and be “saved” by Putin.
The above is reflected in the statistics. The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted a survey on language preferences of Ukrainians in early 2013, before the Maidan, Crimea annexation and Russian invasion of East Ukraine. Back then, 28% of Ukrainians answered that they support the idea of giving the Russian language the status of second official language.
When the Institute repeated the survey two years later, in 2015, and asked the same question “should Russian become the second official language in Ukraine”, only 19% answered yes. Moreover, when the institute asked Ukrainians in 2013 which language they perceive as their native one, 56% said Ukrainian, and 40% said Russian. The Razumkov Centre repeated the survey on the same question in 2016 and got the following results: 69% said Ukrainian is their mother tongue, and 27% said Russian.
So in just a few years following the Maidan and war, the percentage of Ukrainians perceiving Ukrainian as their mother tongue has increased by 13%, whereas the number of those willing to see Russian a second official language decreased by 9%. It is also true that polls’ results are affected not only by the change of language preferences, but also by the fact that Ukraine has lost control over territories that were predominantly Russian-speaking.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the government-controlled territories, the recent laws on Ukrainian language quotas on the radio and television seem to fall under the trend of using Ukrainian more, rather than sparking a conflict.
Of course, many may wonder whether an increased presence of the Ukrainian language on radio and television may limit Russian speakers or make them feel in any way uncomfortable, isolated or excluded from public life. First of all, to put things straight: everyone in Ukraine knows Ukrainian. This is the language taught in schools and universities, the language of all state services and documentation. The choice of language in an everyday life is rather a matter of personal habit or comfort, not the reflection of sole language proficiency.
It is not true that someone who speaks Russian in Ukraine knows only this language and isn’t able to speak Ukrainian. To prove this, in May this year the Institute of Mass Information conducted a survey in the South and East of Ukraine, regions that are predominantly Russian- speaking, on whether they feel comfortable hearing, reading and using Ukrainian.
The results speak for themselves: 81% feel comfortable speaking Ukrainian, 85% feel comfortable reading Ukrainian, and 89% feel comfortable hearing Ukrainian. Unlike the analysis of many Western experts that have recently commented on the language issue in Ukraine, Ukrainians are moving towards a wide national consensus on languages and the increase of Ukrainian in the public sphere, rather than a conflict.
This is also reflected in their political preferences. In a poll conducted by the IRI, only 1% of Ukrainians responded that when selecting a political party during elections its stance on language is the most important issue.
One last remark about this law that has set off so much heated debate: The law that established the very same 75% quota on national television was already in force between 2006 and 2012, but derailed in 2012, when the infamous “Kolesnichenko-Kivalov” law on the principles of the national language policy was adopted. The law cancelled guarantees for the Ukrainian language and was received with a huge demonstration of Ukrainian speakers, known as the “language Maidan”.
In 2016, Poroshenko in a public speech drew attention to the drastically low level of use of Ukrainian on some TV stations. A year later, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law setting the 75% quota for Ukrainian language on national TV stations and 50% on regional television.
According to the monitoring of the National Council on Radio and Television, of 23 national TV stations, 12 already have the requisite level of Ukrainian. At least five of the rest would need only a little effort to meet the quota. The biggest effort should be made by TV channels Ukraina and Inter (using only 26% of Ukrainian in their programmes). The law is due to enter force in October, yet the stations will be given a year of transition during which amount of Ukrainian product would be counted based on the country of origin, not language.
Language is not an easy topic and should be treated with huge respect. It is not just about numbers and percentages, it’s about people’s comfort. It is also unjust, with all due respect to Russian speakers, that the interests and preferences of Ukrainian speakers, who represent a majority in Ukraine, are often neglected and not even taken into account.
Unfortunately, in most of the recent discussions about language laws in Ukraine I, a Ukrainian citizen who observes all the trends and tendencies from the inside, find many speculations and repetitions of the Kremlin stereotypes. In Ukraine, it’s no longer Russian speakers contra Ukrainian speakers, but about a national consensus that will reflect the position acceptable and comfortable for most of the citizens. It is time to stop looking and analysing Ukraine through the prism of the Kremlin’s narrative.
Activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.