Ukraine: language policy armistice; status quo ante

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 8 12:04:19 UTC 2006


By Vladimir Socor

Monday, August 7, 2006

The August 3 Declaration on National Unity, signed by leaders of four
political forces -- the Party of Regions, Our Ukraine, the Socialists, and
(with reservations) the Communists -- as a basis for a governing Coalition
of National Unity, is a declarative rather than a policy document. It
calls for a political truce but does not point to a way out of crisis. A
week-long roundtable discussion (July 27-August 3), chaired by President
Viktor Yushchenko, led to this document and the decision to form the
coalition of four out of five parliamentary parties. The Yulia Tymoshenko
Bloc, strongest Orange force in the wake of the pro-presidential Our
Ukraines electoral debacle, declined to sign the document and will form
the parliamentary opposition.

The resort to the roundtable itself testifies to the year-long crisis of
state institutions in Ukraine. Roundtables were used in 1989-90 in several
Central European countries (Poland being the classic example) to fill the
vacuum created by the collapse of communist state institutions. With
parliaments and governments no longer capable functioning, roundtables
provided a basis for minimal national accord (in essence, avoidance of
violence and anarchy) and initiated the orderly transition to functional
democracy in those countries. The roundtable just held in Kyiv was also
meant to provide a national-accord forum in a situation of systemic
crisis. But, in Ukraines case, a near-collapse of institutions took place
after democratic presidential and parliamentary elections had been held.
No Ukrainian senior official has acknowledged this situation thus far,
much less addressed it, with the apparently single exception of Volodymyr
Horbulin (Zerkalo nedeli, July 22-28) whom Yushchenko recently reinstated
as head of the National Security and Defense Council.

The Kyiv roundtable deflated expectations when representatives of civil
society were dropped from its composition, without explanation, before the
National Unity Declarations final version was negotiated among a handful
of party leaders and signed by seven top figures (the president, prime
minister, parliamentary speaker, and the heads of the four parliamentary
groups in the emergent coalition). In essence, this was a roundtable of
party leaders and interest groups at the top, not a roundtable of
Ukrainian society. The roundtables daytime proceedings were amply
publicized, but were followed up in confidential talks during the night,
when some informal and unpublicized understandings are said to have been
reached, both among the participants and with other interested players
including top businessmen. After it was over, Russian Ambassador Viktor
Chernomyrdin let it be known that he had met repeatedly with Yushchenko
informally (interview in Komsomolskaya pravda, August 4). Although the
Declaration was meant from the outset to be nonbinding, its content was
expected to provide some clear indications as to the policy and actions of
the emergent coalition. This is not the case, however.  While some general
verbiage and redundant clichs were inevitable, they occupy a far larger
space than might have been expected by, or could be sold to, the
electorate, particularly the voters with more developed democratic
aspirations. When addressing a few hard issues, the document steers a
middle ground between political forces that have until now espoused
opposite policy prescriptions. Such compromise formulations may also be
inevitable up to a point, but they do not seem to suggest a program for
effective governance.

Thus, the Verkhovna Rada shall urgently adopt legislation necessary for
Ukraines entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) on conditions
acceptable to Ukraine. That legislation could not be adopted during the 18
months that followed the Orange revolution precisely because large
cross-party groups deemed some of those conditions as unacceptable to
their group interests or ideology. Further, Ukraine shall urgently start
talks on creating a free-trade zone of Ukraine and the European Union,
with a view to Ukraines ultimate integration in the EU. At the same time,
Ukraine shall complete work on participation in the
Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Single Economic Space (SES), starting with a
free-trade zone consisting of Ukraine and SES, albeit taking WTO norms
into account. How to reconcile these priorities, interests, and ideologies
in the proposed coalition government remains far from clear.

Gas supplies and pipeline control, one of Ukraines most explosive economic
and political issues, is not mentioned at all. The document mentions
energy only in passing, merely calling for its efficient use. Meanwhile,
outside the largely irrelevant roundtable and Declaration framework,
officials are discussing the possibility of transferring Ukraines transit
pipeline system into de facto Russian control (Kontrakty, July 31; see
EDM, July 14).

The document proposes a seemingly sensible political compromise on
Ukraine-NATO relations: continuing mutually advantageous cooperation for
now, and deferring the issue of membership until some later date, subject
to a national referendum. No mention is made of the Membership Action
Plan, which the Orange leaders had hoped to obtain this year. Their
retreat tacitly acknowledges opposition to NATO membership among
Yushchenkos chosen coalition partners. It also reflects the presidencys
lack of political leadership on this issue from the moment Yushchenko took
office, although he personally supports NATO membership as do the
ministers close to him. With less than 20% public support for NATO
membership in Ukraine at present, the commitment to a referendum amounts
to a mortgage on the future. However, the deferral buys time for
continuing cooperation with NATO and turning public opinion around on the
membership issue after 2009 under different leadership.

The Declarations most useful part for now is the armistice among political
forces regarding the status of the Ukrainian and Russian languages in
Ukraine. The document supports the existing constitutional arrangements,
with Ukrainian as the single state language and the language of official
communication of the authorities on the entire territory of Ukraine.
However, the Declaration also refers to Russian language use in accordance
with the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages -- a document
that the Party of Regions and others interpret as authorizing parallel
official use of Russian in certain regions of Ukraine. In his August 4
acceptance speech to the parliament as prime-minister-designate, Viktor
Yanukovych pledged to observe the status quo on the language issue and
also abjured any intention to propose the federalization of Ukraine.

In sum, the Declaration reverts to the political status quo that had
prevailed before the Orange upheaval and the Blue reaction. It seems
reminiscent of the status-quo of the final Kuchma years on some major
issues, such as cooperation with NATO short of membership, talks with
Russia on possible joint control of Ukraines gas pipelines, short-term
balancing of priorities regarding WTO and EU versus SES, and language
policy armistice in the east and south of the country as long as the
vested economic and political interests in those regions are satisfied.

In essence, this ambiguity-filled Declaration seems mainly intended to
cover the flanks of the four signatory parties with their respective

(Ukrayinska pravda, Ukrainian Television Channel One, Interfax-Ukraine,
August 3-6)

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