On Friday, August 10th 2012, the parliamentary journal Voice of Ukraine published an announcement stating that Russian is now the second official language in Ukraine. The act concerning the status of Russian language arouses a lot of controversy and has been causing protest in the western part of the country.
Although the act does not concern only the Russian language, it is obvious that this change has influence especially on the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. According to new law, regions where over ten per cent of the population speaks a minority language, it can become official. Next to Russian, which is dominant in 13 of 27 regions, official status will also be given to Hungarian in Zakarpattia and Romanian in Bukovina.
The new law has been very controversial. President Viktor Yanukovych and his ruling Party of Regions have been pursuing this type of legislation since their electoral victory in 2010. Until now, most had written it off as just talk. Today, when another election is on the horizon, Yanukovych decided to fight for the Russian-speaking voters. Thanks to the new law, he can count on three to five per cent of the votes more than polls gave him a few months ago. The opposition does not agree with this change and has labelled it “selling Ukraine to Russia”. Everybody knows that president Yanukovych has been slowly inching towards Russia and this move confirms that.
The implementation of Russian as an official language seems to be quite easy taking under consideration the fact that for the most of Ukrainian society it is still the dominant language. The most expressive division is observed between the western and eastern parts of the country. In the West, people usually speak Ukrainian and Russian is unwelcomed.
“I have seen an ugly scene while on a bus in Lviv,” says Anna, a student from Kyiv. “Two young men were speaking Russian. The whole bus stared at them as if they were their enemies. Finally, someone told them to leave the bus. When they refused, they were physically forced off the bus. It is so sad, that between Ukrainians – one nation – there is so much hatred.”
The situation looks completely different in the East. Russian is the only language in which you can communicate. “The Ukrainian language is an expression of nationalism and Ukrainian nationalism is old-fashioned,” says Alina, young waitress from Odessa said to me when I asked why she does not speak her national language. “For me, Russian symbolises success and money and this is a kind of lifestyle I want to live” she adds. This proves that the problem of Russian does not concern only the older generation, who nostalgically remember the Soviet times, but also young people who have serious problem with their national identity.
The issue of language is a key in political, social and cultural life of Ukraine. In the public sphere, a fight for Ukrainian is the most important matter for the opposition politicians, who identify speaking Russian with the Russification of the whole social space. The problem is symbolic, because it defines the national identity of the country. The question is, whether Ukraine is a member of the huge East Slavic culture with its Old Church Slavonic language group or it has its own unique soul that expresses itself in Ukrainian.
From the administrative and practical point of view it does not matter so much, because everybody knows Russian and, if necessary, can speak this language. But making it official is a huge step forward and upsets the fragile and silent compromise that has existed between Russian and Ukrainian language until now. This step brings Ukraine to a homogenous, East Slavic community and in the political sense to Russia’s deeper and stronger domination in the post-Soviet region.
It is no wonder that situation is unacceptable for the patriotic and nationalistic part of society. In big cities, especially in the west of the country, locals make protests, fun zones of Ukrainian language and tent cities. They gather together to sing patriotic songs and recite the poems of Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko. They collect signatures and urge people on the streets to join the protest.
But after seeing the political path of Ukraine, it is difficult to imagine that these actions will bring any result. The new act concerning status of minority language shows that bilingualism is a fact, no matter if it is official or not.
Olga Adamczyk is a graduate of political science at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland and a contributor to New Eastern Europe.