Ukraine's Language Law Raises Identity Concerns

KIEV, Ukraine -- Despite public opposition and political wrangling, President Viktor Yanukovych signed Ukraine's controversial language bill into law earlier this month.

Opposition activists clash with riot police July 4, during a protest in Kiev against a new language law as President Viktor Yanukovych summoned the leaders of Parliament to limit a growing crisis. Several people were left covered in blood and broken glass littered the street. The police used tear gas to attempt to bring the situation under control.

The bill passed through the Ukrainian Parliament - the Verkhovna Rada - in early July, gaining the support of 248 deputies, thus easily clearing the required minimum of 226, albeit under controversial circumstances.

Dismissing superficial government measures to quell popular discontent, hundreds of Ukrainians took to the streets after the bill passed, in some of the biggest demonstrations since the so-called Orange Revolution.

The protesters dressed in traditional clothes, waved national flags and brandished portraits of the country's poets such as Taras Shevchenko and Volodymyr Sosyura, who are lauded for their works in Ukrainian.

Among those fighting back the tears caused by police pepper spray was heavyweight boxing champ and leader of the UDAR opposition party, Vitaliy Klytschko.

People blocked the capital's streets, picketed the Ukrainian House political and cultural center in Kiev and some even declared themselves on hunger strike.

The passage of the bill triggered a fresh round of infighting inside the chamber and prompted speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn to tender his resignation amid allegations that parliamentarians had voted on behalf of absent colleagues.

However, a little more than a month later and despite mass protests and major controversy, the bill got the final stamp of approval it needed to become law - the president's signature.

The new law states that, while Ukrainian is still the official language of the country, other "minority" languages used in Ukraine will gain official status.

Local authorities now have the right to choose which language will be considered as the official one in any given region.

This means that about 13 of 27 Ukrainian administrative units will recognize Russian as an official language.

The regions that border neighboring countries may choose Hungarian or Romanian, while some parts of the Crimea are likely to exclusively use the Tatar language.

The law allows officials to issue statements and documents in the regionally chosen language, with the same rules applying to the media and business spheres.

Supporters say the law will help to abolish discrimination against Russian-speaking citizens, improve the status of other minorities living in Ukraine and recognize the fact that for many Ukrainians, their native and everyday language is not Ukrainian.

Citizens who were brought up speaking a different language than Ukrainian will not now have to learn the official language of the country, since it will not be needed even to perform state-level duties or interact with government.

In addition to the advantages for many non-Ukrainian speakers, this may be a beneficial move for the current government's credibility given that both Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov are notorious for having major problems with Ukrainian grammar and pronunciation.

On the other hand, opponents have expressed fears that the law will lead to the eventual loss of Ukrainian sovereignty, citing the key role of language as a transmitter of, and focal point for, national culture and arguing that neglecting the Ukrainian language will inevitably lead to a decline in Ukrainian culture.

Those such as the leader of the opposition Svoboda party Oleg Tyahnybok reject government claims that they are doing all they can to preserve the priority status of Ukrainian language, stating that Yanukovych has now taken up personal responsibility for "neglecting the Ukrainian Constitution and laws, as well as conducting Ukrainophobic politics from the very first day of ruling."

The language issue is traditionally a salient topic in Ukrainian politics, and the Yanukovych period has been no exception.

The relative positioning of Ukrainian and Russian languages and the symbolic and practical effects that this has on Ukrainian identity and self-determination have been linked to myriad issues.

When Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnik proposed in 2011 to slash Ukrainian language and literature teaching in schools, local intelligentsia as well as international watchdog groups launched a campaign for his immediate dismissal.

Belarusian journalist Konstantin Shayan captured Ukrainian fears in this regard when recounting his own experience of living in a country where Russian has long been a second official language.

"Belarusians consider books, press and TV shows in their own language to be inferior," and so they come to consider themselves as provincial to someone else's center, he said.

Shiyan also said that all Ukrainians, whatever their mother tongue, should fight against the language law, unless they want to risk a similar fate to that of contemporary Belarus.

Despite all the good the newly implemented law may bring to the country, for many Ukrainians, this is outweighed by the effect it will have in undermining the key self-identification mechanism for a country that has only been independent for 20 years.

"By tearing the informational and educational spheres of the country to pieces, the government created feudal mini-ghettos inside the country pursuing the only goal: To reduce the resistance of the fractious nation," former Foreign Affairs Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko commented.

However, a step that could ostensibly have seemed to reduce the linguistic aspect of division in Ukraine may end up exacerbating it.

Source: The Prague Post