No real threat to Ukraine’s Russian speakers


What are the ‘legitimate interests’ justifying Putin’s intervention into Ukraine? The most frequently identified interest is the situation of Russians and Russian-speakers. Is the Russian language really under threat?

Uilleam Blacker
4 March 2014

Commentators often use the vague phrase ‘legitimate interests’ to explain Putin’s intervention into Ukraine. These may include gas and oil pipelines, or mistrust of NATO and the EU, but the most frequently identified ‘legitimate interest’ is the situation of Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

The law

On the Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 2 March, Jonathan Steele stated that: ‘Russia's troop movements can be reversed if the crisis abates. That would require the restoration of the language law in eastern Ukraine and firm action to prevent armed groups of anti-Russian nationalists threatening public buildings there.’ The idea that a sovereign government should be expected to legislate under the barrels of an invading force’s guns is a curious one. But there is also a simple factual error here: the 2012 ‘language law’, allowing regions to adopt more than one language for official purposes if they were spoken by at least 10% of the local population (for the Russian language, just under half of Ukrainian regions meet this standard) was not cancelled; the interim president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed this snap move from the parliament.

Ukraine’s new political elite has realised it needs to do everything it can to include Russian-speakers in the ‘revolution.’

Of course, the veto of this short-sighted decision came after the threat from Russia became apparent: but at least the interim government realised its mistake in potentially alienating Russian-speakers. Ukraine’s new political elite seems to have finally realised that it needs to do everything it can to include Russian-speakers in the ‘revolution’ that is being led from Kyiv. The Mayor of Lviv in the Ukrainian-speaking west recorded a special appeal to Russian-speakers, defending their right to use their language, while intellectuals in west and east engaged in a day of swapping languages; journalists who normally speak Ukrainian on TV have been switching to Russian.

Such gestures are, in fact, largely unnecessary for many Russophone Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, who are already supporters of the Maidan; for others, terrified by Russian anti-western and anti-Maidan propaganda, they are badly needed. Russian media, which entirely dominates the Ukrainian east and south (where Russian is mother tongue for the majority of the population), follows Putin’s lead in painting a grotesque propaganda picture of the interim Kyiv government as a fascist coup and of the protesters in Kyiv as terrorists trained by the EU and funded by the US; the phantoms raised to scare people range from neo-Nazis to Euro-homosexuals. But the threat of the ban on the Russian language is one of the fundamental features of Russian media’s scare tactics. The snap repeal of the 2012 language law by the Ukrainian parliament was thus a gift to propagandists.

The interim government needs to avoid further such ‘presents.’ They have recently set up a special commission to work on a new language policy, with representatives from across the political spectrum and including Ukraine’s various linguistic minorities, including, of course, Russian speakers. This is potentially a productive move; on the other hand, the reported inclusion of the notoriously anti-Russian-language Iryna Farion of the nationalist Svoboda party could prove to be another grave mistake in the information war with the Kremlin.

Threat? What threat?

It is worth considering the law that the commission is tasked with replacing, which Jonathan Steele seems so keen to protect (and which still stands), more closely. It was introduced in 2012, based on the EU policy of protecting endangered languages, and allowed Russian to be adopted as a second official language at regional level. The idea that the Russian language is endangered in Ukraine is extremely questionable. First, it is important to note that the right to speak Russian has actually been explicitly protected in the Ukrainian constitution since the 1990s. Russian-language TV programmes, newspapers and books vastly outnumber Ukrainian ones, while Russian dominates the Ukrainian section of the internet. Russian-language education is, and has been, widely available, while there is no restriction on speaking Russian at work anywhere, even in government offices. Russian dominates as the language of business, and in many regions as the spoken language of administration (including in Kyiv).

The idea that the Russian language is endangered in Ukraine is extremely questionable.

The lack of any tangible threat to the Russian language is reflected in surveys of attitudes to language: according to research from 2007, less than 0.5% of the Ukrainian population felt discriminated against because of the language they speak, and a survey in 2010 suggested that less than 5% are worried about their language being repressed. In Russian speaking regions this is slightly higher, but still only around 8-9%. It is hardly surprising then that the Council of Europe dismissed the 2012 language law as a mere election tool, rather than a move to protect minority language rights. This is not to say that Russian speakers do not want increased status for their language – there is considerable support for this in Russophone areas. But this conversation is rather around increasing the status of an already robust, even dominant language, rather than countering any serious threats to people’s rights to use it.

Of course, the new government in Ukraine should strive to include Russians and Russian-speakers, who have (along with everyone else) been concerned by developments in the country. The small but disproportionately vocal right-wing element that alienates many in the south and east needs to be kept on the margin, and visibly disowned by the new authorities. The chauvinistic rhetoric of Svoboda needs to be kept in check; people need to see evidence that their identities and languages are respected and protected. William Hague, for one, has been repeating this in interviews over the last few days, and may other western commentators have expressed concern over the perceived plight of Russian-speakers in Ukraine. What these commentators do not acknowledge is that there has been no evidence so far of any threat to Russians or Russian speakers in Ukraine, and second, that concerns over any such threat should be dealt with internally by Ukraine, and cannot be a factor in judging whether or not Russian troops should be in Crimea.

At the moment, the biggest threat to Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine is Russia itself.

The Ukrainian state should be left to decide its language policies for itself. It is unlikely that any legislation they propose to replace Yanukovych’s discredited language law will in any way infringe the rights of Russians and Russian speakers. At the moment, the biggest threat to Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine is Russia itself. So far, deaths and injuries in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have come as a result of violent demonstrations that are encouraged by Russian media propaganda, and reportedly being inflamed by Russian-sponsored groups and Russian citizens who are travelling to Ukraine for this purpose.

If armed conflict does break out, most of those involved, whether civilians or military, will be Russian speakers. This conflict will have been provoked by Russia, and the responsibility for the lives of Russian-speakers that may be lost will lie with Putin.

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