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Why Ukraine’s new language law will have long-term consequences

Ukraine’s new language law, passed at the end of the former president’s rule, makes another attempt to divide Ukrainian citizens.

Roman Huba
28 May 2019
"A single state language unites us" reads this t-shirt in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada
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(c) RIA Novosti. All rights reserved

If Russian democracy ends where Ukraine begins, as a popular saying goes, then Ukrainian democracy ends when the conversation about language begins. The “language issue” can make anyone hate each other and lead to additional friction in society.

Ukraine’s new “Law on Guaranteeing the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language” emerged out of Draft Law 5670-D, one of four language laws registered in the Ukrainian parliament. All of these bills were drawn up in response to the declaration of the 2012 “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko Law” (also known as the “Law on the Basis of State Policy”) as unconstitutional. This law, drawn up under the Viktor Yanukovych regime, was developed to extend the rights of regional languages in Ukraine, but Ukraine’s opposition criticised it as part of a “Russification” drive.

Immediately after the victory of EuroMaidan in 2014, parliamentary deputies tried to revoke the “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko Law”, on 23 February. But acting president Oleksandr Turchynov decided not to sign off on parliament’s decision. The very attempt to revoke the law outraged people of very different political views. Two days after, members of the Lviv intelligentsia came out in defence of the Russian language. Parliament’s decision was interpreted as an attack on the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and became yet another trigger for pro-Russian separatism in the east of the country.

In June 2014, newly elected president Petro Poroshenko called parliament’s actions a mistake. Having come to power on the idea of a “united country”, Poroshenko couldn’t permit himself to divide Ukrainian society any further. And in his inauguration speech he made a separate address to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Russian.

Five years later, Volodymyr Zelensky repeated this address to Russian speakers during his inauguration - and received several angry shouts from parliament in response. The times, it seems, have changed.

Army, faith, language

In the 2019 presidential elections, Poroshenko ran for a second term with the slogan “Army, faith, language”. Bill 5670-D was approved in its first reading on 4 October 2018. Next came the process of amendments (some 3,000 of them), and parliament passed the law in its second reading on 25 April 2019. By that time, the law was already useless in terms of helping Poroshenko at the ballot box - he’d lost the first round a few days before.

But the language law can still be of use to the former president at this year’s parliamentary elections. According to party representatives, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc is transforming itself into an ideological right-wing party. Revitalising the “language issue” could be very useful for them.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Petro Poroshenko acted in tandem with pro-Russian politicians to improve his own rating

Indeed, a consolidation of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking electorate in response to this strategy could draw potential votes from Volodymyr Zelensky’s political party towards Opposition Bloc and other political groups that emerged from the Yanukovych-era Party of Regions. This wouldn’t be the first time that Petro Poroshenko acted in tandem with pro-Russian politicians to improve his own rating. During the recent presidential election, Ukrainian media which are friendly to Poroshenko actively promoted pro-Russian candidate Yuri Boiko - in order to push the “unpatriotic” (and beatable) candidate into the second round.

After the new language law was passed in parliament and signed into force by speaker Andriy Parubiy, it was not published on parliament’s website, despite the promises of Mykola Knyazhytsky, chairperson of the parliamentary committee on culture and spirituality. It was only published in full on 16 May in the parliamentary newspaper. The law comes into force on 16 July. Several of its provisions will be implemented later.

Not a word in Russian

The introduction to the law states that the “full functioning of Ukrainian on the entire territory of the state guarantees the preservation of the identity of the Ukrainian nation and strengthening of the unity of Ukraine”, and that “the Ukrainian language is a defining factor and main marker of identity of the Ukrainian nation”. The Ukrainian parliament also refers to Ukraine’s Constitution, and Article 10 says that the “state language in Ukraine is Ukrainian”. But that same article states that “the free development, use and defence of Russian and other languages of national minorities is guaranteed in Ukraine”.

According to the new law, the only state and official language in Ukraine is Ukrainian. It is to be used during the operation of duties of state power and local self-government. The law does not cover private interaction and religious rituals.

Andriy Parubiy | (c) RIA Novosti. All rights reserved

The first version of the law contained a point about the introduction of “language inspectors” - public officials who were to monitor the obligatory use of Ukrainian. But this norm has now been removed, while keeping the position of a public official with oversight over defence of Ukrainian.

These “inspectors” were removed following a negative reaction from society (for example, heated debates on social media). As Iryna Podolyak, one of the authors of the law, said: “Russian propaganda, which started frightening people with [language] inspectors, has won. Everyone immediately imagined an environmental inspector - who has to be bribed - or, perhaps, a [police] traffic inspector.”

Moreover, during the law’s second reading, parliament removed several other norms, such as those that concerned newspapers in foreign languages. For example, the first version of the law stated that every media resource in a foreign language should have a Ukrainian version. Thus, the Kyiv Post, an English-language publication, would have had to release a Ukrainian edition of its newspaper - and bear the financial costs. By the second reading, this provision had been removed. Now media are not obliged to publish a Ukrainian-language version if they publish in Crimean Tatar or any of the other official languages of the European Union. This compromise does not cover Russian.

It will be possible to change some of the law’s problems via amendment later. But it’s impossible to change the message that the Ukrainian authorities have sent

A similar provision is applied to education, where one or more subjects can be taught in a European Union language, but not in Russian. You can only receive a pre-school or primary education in the language of a national minority (which Russian is).

It’s worth noting that the law states that Crimean Tatar language is the language of the native people of Crimea, but it doesn’t cover other languages that people speak in Ukraine - such as Russian, Romanian or Hungarian. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó has already called this new law “unacceptable”. And the Ukrainian state will probably have to come to an agreement with the Hungarian or Romanian foreign ministries. Any outrage from the Russian state will be ignored.

Moreover, the new law regulates the use of language in Ukraine’s culture industry, and these norms will come into force in two years. For instance, you will only be able to use foreign languages in theatres in case of “artistic necessity”. The law does not explain who will define this “necessity” or how. Meanwhile, the number of films shown in cinemas that aren’t dubbed into Ukrainian cannot exceed 10%. The number of times that foreign films are shown in their original dubbing cannot exceed more than 10% of the cinema’s entire repertoire.

Everyone but Moscow

It will be possible to change some of the law’s problems via amendment later. But it’s impossible to change the message that the Ukrainian authorities have sent.

“We tried to account for the opinion of all interested parties which adhere to the state’s policy. The only opinion that we weren’t going to account for is the opinion of Moscow. Let them study Russian,” said Petro Poroshenko in his parliamentary speech dedicated to the new law .

We can explain Poroshenko’s attitude to Russian language via his political ambitions. (After all, the outgoing president recently called himself a Russian speaker.) But what should Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who don’t consider themselves an ethnic minority, do? The time-bomb placed in this new law is the playing around with the following concept: if you’re a Ukrainian, that means you’re a Ukrainian speaker.

But that’s not how it works. This kind of rough division of Ukrainian citizens into “our people” and “the rest” is impermissible in a multi-ethnic state involved in a territorial conflict. By symbolically giving away Russian as a language, and with it - Russian-speaking Ukrainians, to Moscow, too many people are now faced with the prospect of not being counted as Ukrainians.

The new language law does not solve the issue of how Russian and Ukrainian co-exist as languages. Instead, it raises the problem to a new level. Any criticism of the law can be interpreting as “wrecking”. For example, immediately after the law was passed, parliamentary speaker Andriy Parubiy warned parliament that “those people who try to revise the language law, the law on decommunisation or the church, will soon feel the whole anger of the Ukrainian people.” Finding enemies among your own people will soon be a lot easier. And in light of the inevitable parliamentary elections this year, this law is good for everyone - that is, of course, apart from voters themselves.

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