Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 25 17:20:19 UTC 2006


By Oleg Varfolomeyev

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Party of Regions (PRU), which strengthened its grip on Ukraine's
Russophone east and south after the March 26 parliamentary election,
continues to probe the government's weaknesses, challenging it on the
sensitive issue of language. The PRU-dominated Donetsk regional council
has followed the example of the PRU-dominated Luhansk, Kharkiv, and
Sevastopol councils, approving regional-language status for Russian. The
government, in response, threatened to come up with tough measures against
all those who violate the constitution, according to which Ukrainian is
the only language having official status. The government's position is
that the councils' language decisions are a threat to national security,
part of a plan to exacerbate tension in society and downgrade the status
of Ukrainian. The government also argues that language matters are the
remit of the national -- rather than regional -- bodies of power.

The PRU, meanwhile, looks set to raise the issue at the national level. On
May 17, the party's governing body -- the political council -- issued a
statement, "On the Protection of Constitutional Rights of the
Russian-speaking Citizens of Ukraine," promising to raise the Russian
language issue soon after the new parliament convenes on May 25. In the
statement, the PRU pledged "to continue to defend the right of people to
think, speak, and educate their children in the mother tongue." The PRU
brushed aside the Justice Ministry's protests against the decisions of
Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Sevastopol on the status of Russian, saying that
only the Constitutional Court is entitled to rule on language matters.
Incidentally, the PRU has been among the parties blocking the election of
new judges to the Constitutional Court, fearing that the Court might take
President Viktor Yushchenko's side and reverse the recent constitutional
reforms that diminished the president's authority.

On May 18, the Donetsk region council voted by 122 votes to three (with
one abstention) to give Russian the status of regional language. As in the
cases of Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Sevastopol, Donetsk deputies said they were
guided by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The
council not only ruled that Russian may be used in business, official
documents, and educational establishments on a par with Ukrainian, but it
also called on parliament to give Russian state-language status along with
Ukrainian. The council said that the current constitution ignores the fact
that Russian is the mother tongue for about one-third of Ukrainians,
equating Russian to the many minority languages spoken by small
communities inside Ukraine. Along with the PRU, the Communists and the
radical left-wing Progressive Socialists in the Donetsk council supported
the language decision.

Official reaction followed immediately. Donetsk Region Prosecutor Oleksiy
Bahanets, who is subordinated to Kyiv, promised to appeal the council's
decision in court as soon as he obtains official documents on the matter
from the council. On May 18, the cabinet gathered for a meeting to condemn
the eastern councils on language matters. Deputy Prime Minister for
Humanitarian Affairs Vyacheslav Kyrylenko blamed "certain forces" for
trying to "downgrade and practically fully exclude the state language from
usage, rather than protect minority languages." President Yushchenko's
legal adviser, Mykola Poludyonny, went even further, warning of a
separatist threat.

The Justice Ministry was instructed to come up with amendments to language
laws and regulations in order to toughen penalties for
language-legislation violators. It was also decided that the next meeting
of the National Security and Defense Council would be on the language
issue. It may, however, take some time for the council to convene, as its
secretary, Anatoly Kinakh, resigned last week. Kyrylenko apparently found
it difficult to explain, speaking on television on May 22, why exactly the
elevation of the Russian language status in the eastern regions was a
national security threat. "The state has certain principles, and state
language is an element of national security very important for state
institutes," he offered.

The language row reveals the lack of understanding regarding how deep the
language problem runs in Kyiv. It has been ignored for years, and
President Yushchenko continues to insist that there is no language problem
at all, despite the fact that pro-Communist and pro-Russian forces have
been regularly using the language issue against the government in all
sorts of elections. There has been no consistent policy of
Ukrainianization, famous Ukrainian philosopher Myroslav Popovych believes.
Commenting for the website Forum, he noted that it is sometimes difficult
to admit that the issue is actually about the "assimilation of the
Russian-speaking population," which has to be "logical and unforced," but
so far has been forcible. Media expert Mykola Knyazhytsky told Forum that
the main mistake of the government has been imposing Ukrainian in those
regions where it is traditionally barely spoken, instead of financing
Ukrainian culture in the traditionally Ukrainian-speaking areas, such as

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list