Ukraine divided over language row

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Apr 25 12:57:52 UTC 2005

>>From the BBC,

Ukraine divided over language row

The future status of the Russian language in Ukraine is the cause of
public and political debate. The BBC's Helen Fawkes speaks to
Russian-speakers who fear discrimination and Ukrainians who are proud of
their mother tongue.  It is a difficult lesson for Oleg Tikhomirov. The
teenager is being taught Ukrainian. It is the official language and
everyone studies it.

But like all the children in his class in Kiev, Oleg's native language is
Russian. His family is part of the 30% of the country who say that Russian
is their mother tongue. "I think the worst thing is to introduce Ukrainian
language using force and to take away choice from people," says Oleg's
mother, Irina Tikhomirova.

Russification fear

Following last year's disputed presidential elections where language
became a contentious issue, these people fear they will be discriminated
against. Defeated candidate Viktor Yanukovych had promised to make Russian
a state language. He was supported by Russian-speaking parts of the
Ukraine, while Viktor Yushchenko was largely backed by the
Ukrainian-speaking West. Many of his supporters voted for him because they
want to put a stop to the "Russification" of their country.

"I think the Ukrainian language is still hugely under threat," Mr
Yushchenko said in a newspaper article shortly after being elected. "The
previous administration didn't think there was a problem but if we lose
our language we lose our culture." During Soviet times people were taught
to speak Russian. It was only after independence that Ukrainian became the
official language here.

Russian is still widely used in this country, especially in the east, the
Crimea and the capital. According to a recent opinion poll, six out of 10
people would like Russian to become Ukraine's second official language.
Two of the main opposition parties are now trying to get parliament to
introduce laws to protect the rights of Russian speakers. They want to
make it easier for people to use their native language while at school and
dealing with the authorities.

Labour camp

"Many people have never learnt to speak Ukrainian and they find life
difficult. We want equal rights for Russian-speakers," says Mikhailo
Illarionov, from the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine. The media caters
for both languages. You can buy newspapers in either Russian or Ukrainian.
One television station even uses both languages at once.  The most popular
programmes on the music channel M1 have two presenters.  One of them
speaks only Ukrainian while the other just uses Russian.

Flicking though a pile of black and white photos at his home in Kiev,
Yevhen Sverstyuk looks back at more repressive times. The Ukrainian author
picks out pictures of himself and fellow prisoners.  In the 1960s Yevhen
wrote a book in Ukrainian. He was punished by the Soviet authorities and
spent 12 years in a labour camp in Siberia. "The Ukrainian nation has been
fighting for their native language for centuries. People have even died in
the struggle to use the Ukrainian language," he says.

Many of those who voted for Mr Yushchenko speak Ukrainian. They now hope
for a new chapter in the country's history - where there is less Russian
influence and more pride in the native language.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2005/04/22 11:25:49 GMT

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