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Ukraine/Russia: War Of Words Rages Over Language

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Russia is taking an increasingly harsh line over what it says are Ukraine's attempts to sideline the Russian language and discriminate against Ukraine's large Russian-speaking minority. Ukraine is replying in kind. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the two countries' verbal war.

Prague, 13 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Ukraine are engaging in an increasingly heated war of words about language.

The Russian government has criticized a Ukrainian policy aimed at making the use of the Ukrainian language mandatory for all state officials and increasing its use in schools. Russian organizations in both Russia and Ukraine have joined in the criticism.

Last week (9 March), hundreds of people in the west Ukrainian city of Lviv demonstrated to demand the closure of all Russian-language publications. In the capital, Kyiv, nationalists demanded that Russian be banned from official use and from television.

Last Friday, protesters from Russian Orthodox organizations picketed the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow. They demanded equal rights for the Ukrainian and Russian languages in Ukraine and what one of the organizations, the Christian Rebirth Union, called "equal rights for ethnic Russians on Ukrainian territory."

The upsurge in Russian concern follows Ukrainian proposals in the last three months to increase the use of Ukrainian in education and introduce Ukrainian language tests for state employees and officials. Russian-speakers are angry that they may not be eligible for some state jobs unless they learn Ukrainian. Some Russian community organizations in Ukraine have characterized the moves as an attack on Russian culture generally.

Last month, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said the measures could infringe upon human rights and damage what it called "the cultural and linguistic environment." The statement said such actions in so sensitive an area as language usually have "dire consequences."

At the same time, Russian human-rights commissioner Oleg Mironov said that Ukraine's language proposals grossly violated international norms, particularly the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Ukraine is a signatory. He called he scale of language discrimination in Ukraine "massive and unprecedented."

In reply to the Russian charges, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ihor Hrushko said that everyone in Ukraine had the right to choose his or her language of education. According to the Foreign Ministry, that is not true of Russia, where, it says, the country's large Ukrainian community has had very little official support for Ukrainian-language publications or activities.

In any case, said Hrushko, Ukraine was sure that its proposals were in accord with human-rights norms:

"We have already informed the Russian side that if this practice of groundlessly twisting the facts -- that is, the real situation concerning languages in Ukraine -- continues, then the Ukrainian side reserves the right to turn the matter over for independent assessment by the Council of Europe, the OSCE's (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) human-rights experts or other respected international bodies. We are absolutely convinced that we are in the right on this issue and we are ready for any international adjudication."

The language issue is an extremely emotional one throughout the former Soviet Union. Non-Russians point out that they were forced to use Russian in central and local government administration, in the workplace and in education. The use of a non-Russian native language was often portrayed by Soviet authorities as evidence of nationalism, and thousands were executed or sent to labor camps for trying to defend their native language.

Many Ukrainians, in particular, believe that during the Soviet era, Russian was used as a weapon against the national identity of non-Russian peoples. Under Soviet rule, Ukrainians found it much safer to use Russian. Besides, Russian was not only the language of opportunity in education and in the workplace but also the predominant language of literature and entertainment, including television and films.

Within Ukraine, there is a pronounced divide between the western and eastern regions in the use of language. Western Ukraine -- which was not incorporated into the Soviet Union until after World War II -- is predominantly Ukrainian-speaking. Eastern Ukraine was heavily russified during the czarist Russian empire and later under communism. The East also contains many of Ukraine's ethnic Russians, who make up about one-fifth of the country's 50 million inhabitants.

After Ukraine attained independence, Ukrainian became the state language and Ukrainian was introduced into more schools and institutes as the language of instruction. But one-third of the country's schools continue to use Russian, and much official business is still conducted in that language, and Russian-language publications and television programs abound.

Many Ukrainians say that their language needs to be boosted as an essential ingredient of national identity. They feel little sympathy for Russians who are reluctant to learn the language of the country they are living in.