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Ukrainian election and thorny politics of language

In a crass move to help his re-election campaign, President Poroshenko is playing language politics which goes against the diverse reality and tolerant values of Ukraine after Maidan.

February 11, 2019 - Nikolas Kozloff - Analysis

The territorial administration building in Uzhhorod (Zakarpattia Oblast, Ukraine) Photo: VargaA (cc) wikimedia.org

As Ukraine fast approaches its March 2019 presidential election, nationalist and populist politics are heating up. Recently, President Poroshenko signed a new law on education stipulating that all secondary education should be taught in Ukrainian. In a period of heightened tensions with Moscow over Donbas, the law seems patently designed to shore up the Ukrainian language in opposition to Russian speakers. However, in seeking to bolster Ukrainian, politicians could alienate not only the Russian minority but also other groups such as Hungarians. What is the mood on the ground and how does the public perceive Kyiv’s more assertive moves? Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Ukraine where I interviewed political experts, Ukrainian speakers, and minorities to get a handle on such matters.

In light of previous efforts to impose the Russian language in Ukraine, it is entirely understandable that Kyiv would seek to reform its language policies. For more than two centuries and continuing on into the Soviet period, Ukrainians were forced to learn Russian. Today, Ukrainian speakers represent the majority in the country, followed by Russian speakers, Hungarians and Romanians respectively. To get a sense of the Ukrainian “mood on the street,” I caught up with Gennady Kanishchenko who used to own a café, Bar Baraban, located just a stone’s throw away from Maidan square. 

The bar, which was recently forced to close, had been festooned with nationalist Ukrainian graffiti and served for years as a watering hole for journalists and EuroMaidan protesters. Kanishchenko, who is a native Ukrainian speaker, mused on the ironies of his country’s language dynamics. For centuries, he told me, the Ukrainian language was discouraged and yet today native speakers face difficulties. “Here we are in the middle of a country called Ukraine,” he remarked with exasperation, “and yet, when I purchase food in the supermarket and I speak Ukrainian, the cashier gives me the evil eye. I am obliged to switch to Russian, because it’s more common, and this is crazy. I can’t imagine this happening in any other country.”

Thorny politics

While such sentiments may seem understandable, reforming Ukraine’s language policy is delicate and fraught, particularly since the eruption of the EuroMaidan revolution of 2013-14 with its nationalist fringes. Following the revolution, the government scrapped a law allowing some regions to utilize Russian as an official second language, a move which fueled anti-Ukrainian unrest in the Donbas and even, with Moscow’s prodding, morphed into armed insurgency.

It’s impossible to overlook the political backdrop to Poroshenko’s nationalist stance and his signing of the language law. Facing abysmal poll numbers in advance of the election, and having failed to tackle corruption and other serious social problems, Poroshenko has adopted “Language, Faith, Army” as his campaign’s slogan. After he signed the bill, Poroshenko came under withering criticism from Ukraine’s ethnic minorities. Reportedly, the president hopes to stake out an ultra-nationalist campaign strategy which will hopefully get him through the first round of voting. It’s an open question, however, whether such a strategy could backfire by fueling further ethnic conflict. Olexiy Yakubin, a senior lecturer in political science at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, told me that Poroshenko’s nationalism could encourage “Russophobia.” In addition to his promotion of the Ukrainian language, Poroshenko has said the Russian Orthodox Church constitutes a kind of “fifth column.” 

Hungarian perspective

For more on the politics of language, I traveled to western Ukraine, home to Ukrainians but also minority speakers such as Hungarians. Within certain areas, many Hungarian children educated in Hungarian-language high schools fail to demonstrate adequate proficiency in the Ukrainian language, with up to 75 per cent of students failing their Ukrainian final exams. In order to gain further insight into the Hungarian perspective, I traveled to the city of Uzhgorod and spoke to Zita Batori, a native Hungarian speaker and professor of sociology and social work at Uzhgorod National University.

Speaking to me at a local cafeteria, Batori explained that growing up, she had encountered some obstacles as a Hungarian speaker. Though she was a very good student in high school during the Soviet period, she was later placed at a disadvantage at university where she was expected to speak Ukrainian, a language she had never studied before. “If you cannot answer questions quickly, people might come to the conclusion that you’re stupid or not very well developed,” she commented. Fortunately, Batori was familiar with Russian, and that helped. 

To be sure, my contact emphasized, she opposes Russian aggression in Crimea and the Donbas. Nevertheless, she added, “people can still be model Ukrainians while speaking the Russian language.” Implicitly, Batori seemed to understand the language policy was probably directed toward Russian speakers rather than Hungarian speakers, but both groups could wind up getting sidelined. As a result, she sympathized with her community’s criticism of the new language law. “I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” she remarked, adding “I still think in Hungarian and even count in my own language.”

Furthermore, as a purely practical matter Batori doubted whether the new policy would be workable. Her own children are exemplary students, and she was determined not to send them very far from Uzhgorod. What is a mother to do, when confronted with the daunting logistical choice of either sending her children 800 kilometers away to study at university in Kyiv, or 350 kilometers away to study in Budapest? Ultimately, it is a no-brainer to opt for Budapest, which has the best universities. “Look,” Batori explained, “I agree everyone should speak the Ukrainian language, but not to the point that it’s forbidden to complete your high school studies in Hungarian.” Despondently, the professor added, “I don’t know if anyone in Ukrainian politics understands what they’re doing to us. I don’t think anyone cares.”

Fostering a new national identity

What’s more, by pushing forward with the new language law, Kyiv has alienated the western policy wonk establishment. Take, for example, the Atlantic Council which remarks that “at a time of war, politicians should be focusing on promoting civic virtues such as democracy, E.U. integration, the rule of law, and tolerance—things all citizens can theoretically identify with—as opposed to ill-conceived attempts to divide and segment the population for short-term electoral gain.” Chiming in for good measure, other watchdog groups have criticized Ukraine’s language law which “raises issues of discrimination”.

Just what type of country does Ukraine seek to become? Perhaps, Kyiv should adopt legislation which is more reflective of its own multi-ethnic character rather than trying to associate national identity so closely with language. That, at least, is the impression I got from speaking to Denis Pilash, a veteran of Maidan’s progressive political protest and co-editor of Kyiv’s Commons Journal.

Like Batori, Pilash is a native of Uzhgorod who defines himself as Rusyn, though he also has Hungarian, Croatian, and perhaps even German, Tatar and Jewish roots. Pilash speaks Ukrainian or Russian with his friends in Kyiv, while communicating in Rusyn  at home with his family (for good measure, he also speaks Hungarian). Despite his multi-faceted roots, Pilash tries to avoid such labels, referring to himself simply as “an internationalist”.

The “ethnic question” should be addressed in the presidential campaign, Pilash remarked, but “in a different way, because now it’s just framed as dangerous separatism or blaming people or looking out for so-called proxies of Russian aggression. The discussion should center more on creating a more inclusive and pluralistic society which puts Russian speakers, Hungarian speakers and others on an equal footing.”

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based author and a contributor to such venues as Al Jazeera, Huffington Post and Le Monde Diplomatique. For the past four years, he has been writing prolifically about the deterioration in East-West relations and the political crisis in Ukraine.

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