[lg policy] Volodymyr Kulyk: Ukrainians are ready to shed the legacy of Soviet Russification

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Oct 7 15:57:13 EDT 2017

Volodymyr Kulyk: Ukrainians are ready to shed the legacy of Soviet
By Volodymyr Kulyk <https://www.kyivpost.com/author/volodymyr-kulyk>.
 Published Oct. 6 at 3:00 pm
People select books at the Arsenal International Book Festival on May 17,
2017 in Kyiv.

Ever since Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, its leaders have
been careful with the so-called language issue, and Western advisers have
urged them to apply even more care. Latest survey data indicate that the
time has come for a more resolute language policy.

After the Soviet rule, the country’s population included 22 percent of
ethnic Russians, and even more people who retained their Ukrainian
ethnicity but came to speak Russian as their main language. While amounting
to just above a half of all Ukrainian citizens, this combined population of
Russian-speakers constituted a large majority in the eastern and southern
regions. Any resolute imposition of the titular language could be expected
to provoke mass discontent on the part of Russian-speakers who were
accustomed to using Russian for all purposes and often lacked proficiency
in the previously marginalized Ukrainian.

Therefore, the Ukrainian state’s policy in the language domain has been
cautious, inconsistent, and heterogeneous in terms of both region and
domain. Although Ukrainian was proclaimed the sole state (official)
language, Russian continued to be widely used in virtually all social
interactions. While Ukrainian prevailed in the west and was increasingly
used in the center, Russian remained predominant in the east and south.
While Ukrainian became the main language of public administration and
education, Russian stood its ground in business, media and many other
prestigious domains. Although most people valued Ukrainian as their
national language, this symbolic valorization did not necessarily affect
their communicative preferences.

EuroMaidan and the Russian aggression brought about a change in
ethnonational identities which, in turn, shifted a balance of language
attitudes in favor of Ukrainian. The alienation from Russia led many
Ukrainians to renounce the Russian language and, at the same time, embrace
Ukrainian as the language of their nation to which they came to feel
stronger attachment.

While the full-fledged switch from Russian to Ukrainian was rather
exceptional, many people changed their preferences for particular practices
such as communication with the authorities and consumption of the media.
Even those who continue speaking primarily Russian themselves now want the
state and service providers to use more Ukrainian and thereby gradually
change the language landscape of society.

Data of a comprehensive survey on language practices and attitudes, which
was commissioned by the Research Initiative for Democratic Reform in
Ukraine and implemented by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in
May 2017, vividly demonstrate this change. When compared to the results of
two previous surveys designed by this author and conducted by the same
institute in 2012 and 2014, this data shows that Ukrainians increasingly
support the use of the titular language in various practices, both within
and beyond the public sector.

One of the most impressive findings is a marked shift from Russian to
Ukrainian in the responses about the actual and desirable languages of
media consumption. This trend pertains to various types of media from books
and newspapers to television and the internet.

The earlier prevalence of media products in Russian resulted from both its
use on many post-Soviet markets and the consumer preferences within Ukraine
where Russian remained the language of choice for most urban residents who
were more affluent than rural ones and, therefore, more popular with
advertisers. No less important, people speaking mostly Ukrainian in
everyday life were more willing to consume the media in the accustomed
Russian than those speaking mostly Russian were ready to embrace the still
not quite familiar Ukrainian.

It is this fundamental post-imperial asymmetry that the surveys show
gradually disappearing; that is, Ukrainian-speakers became more selective
and Russian-speakers more willing to add Ukrainian to their language
repertoire. This change in the two groups’ preferences resulted in a
stronger total demand for media products in Ukrainian.

In some media types such as books, the producers met this demand with an
increased supply of various products. In other types such as radio and
television, the marginalization of Ukrainian persisted, thus urging its
champions to initiate legislative provisions on the minimal share of
airtime in the state language. These recently adopted provisions will make
the broadcasters to bring their language regime in accordance with the
audiences’ new preferences. On the radio for which the legislation took
effect almost a year ago, this is already happening.

A no less important trend revealed by the surveys is the Ukrainian
citizens’ increased preference for the use of the titular language by
people servicing them in both the public and private sector.

For the state establishments, the latest survey shows a clear preference
for the exclusive use of Ukrainian, with 68 percent of respondents
indicating this option for documentation and 59 percent for oral
communication with citizens. When asked whether public servants are obliged
to respond in Ukrainian to those visitors addressing them in that language,
fully 70 percent agreed that such an obligation applies to the entire
Ukraine and further 15 percent limited it to those territories where
Ukrainian is the language of the local majority. Such an attitude would be
trivial for an established nation-state but it is new and remarkable in a
post-imperial context.

Even more remarkable is the fact that 54 percent of respondents support the
same nationwide obligation for employees in trades and services, that is,
in the private sector. Although there is currently no such provision in the
legislation, most citizens seem to believe there should be. President
Poroshenko seemed to grasp this mood in his recent announcement of a draft
law on the use of Ukrainian in service industries.

While it is certainly necessary to put an end to marginalization of the
titular language in this important domain, a patchy approach to language
policy focusing on the most urgent problems is inadequate. More appropriate
would be the adoption of a comprehensive language law that would set clear
requirements on the use of Ukrainian in various domains, in accordance with
its status of the sole state language, while safeguarding the right to use
the minority languages as stipulated by Ukraine’s international commitments.

By making good knowledge of the Ukrainian language necessary for careers in
both public and private domain, such a law would also justify the increased
focus on the knowledge of that language in the newly adopted law on
education. Although this law caused protests by some of

the neighboring states concerned with the reduced scope of schooling in the
minority languages, the Ukrainian government is certainly right to
introduce the instruction mostly in the majority language as a precondition
for its good knowledge and subsequent use. However, there is not much sense
to prioritize the knowledge of Ukrainian while ignoring the problem of its
inadequate use in many domains where graduates of schools and colleges will
come to work.

Actually, a draft language law intended to ensure the prevalence of
Ukrainian in all social domains was submitted earlier this year by several
dozen members of different parliamentary factions. However, President
Poroshenko and other top politicians have so far refrained from publicly
expressing their support for the draft, probably for the same old fear of
Russian-speakers’ discontent, now exacerbated by their reluctance to make
radical domestic moves at a time of foreign aggression.

The survey data indicate that they are wrong. Ukrainian society is ready to
shed more resolutely the legacy of Soviet Russification. It is time the
state leadership matched that readiness.

*Volodymyr Kulyk is head research fellow at the Institute of Political and
Ethnic Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He has taught at
Columbia, Stanford, and Yale universities, and has published widely on the
politics of language and identity in Ukraine.*
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