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Ukraine: Russian Speakers Say Ukrainian Lawmakers Aren't Getting The Message Behind Advertising Law

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A new law in Ukraine that says all advertising must be in the Ukrainian language is being criticized as discriminatory against Russian speakers. As RFE/RL reports, the new law demonstrates that the language issue remains a sensitive one in Ukraine.

Prague, 24 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian Parliament recently adopted a law stipulating that all advertising -- in newspapers, on billboards, and on television and radio -- should be in the Ukrainian language. The law forbids advertising in any other language and is punishable by a fine of four times the cost of the advertisement.

Critics of the new law -- adopted last month -- say advertisers will not want to advertise only in Ukrainian because they won't be able to reach the audiences they are targeting.

Alexander Bazeljuk leads the Slavic politic party, based in the eastern city of Donetsk, which seeks closer ties with Russia. He says the new law could ruin many Russian-language newspapers, since advertisers in regions where Russian is predominantly spoken will not pay for ads in the Ukrainian language.

"Where we live, people speak Ukrainian very poorly. In our region -- that is, the left bank [eastern] Ukraine -- people don't know Ukrainian well, and when Ukrainian ads appear in a newspaper, nobody wants to reach for a dictionary to find out what it all means," Bazeljuk said.

He said the law will also hurt companies that can't afford to produce new Ukrainian language advertising materials: "Let's take the example of a company which wants to advertise in shops. Say it can spend $3,000 on that. Now it's obliged to spend more money and resources to produce Ukrainian ads. They don't have money for that in the firm's budget."

Bazeljuk also believes the law is discriminatory, principally against Russian-speakers, and is a breach of human rights.

"Let's say I travel from Ukraine to Germany where there are many Germans of Russian origin. I place an ad, counting on the fact that it will be read by Russian emigrants to Germany. That's normal, isn't it? But if a German or Briton or a Czech wanted to place an ad [in a Ukrainian newspaper], they could only do so only in Ukrainian in accordance with the new law. Therefore, from a purely humanitarian point of view, this is discrimination -- firstly, against the Russian language, and secondly, against all other languages," Bazeljuk said.

Many Russian-language publications have so far ignored the new law. Bazeljuk said only two cases have been brought to court so far and in both cases the people who advertised in Russian won their cases. Bazeljuk said the defendants successfully argued that the new law breaches Ukraine's commitments to European Union legislation safeguarding minority languages. He hopes parliament will soon amend or scrap the new law.

But some involved in the advertising industry in Ukraine disagree.

Sashko Kovtonenko is the co-owner of a successful advertising agency called KAS, based in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Since its beginning 10 years ago, KAS has produced advertising exclusively in the Ukrainian language.

"I want to tell you that many companies which use the Ukrainian language in their advertisements -- and the biggest of these are in the alcohol and tobacco sectors, these are the two which spend the most money in the Ukrainian market -- they always, and I emphasize always, worked in the Ukrainian language and gained great results and success and nobody saw any problems in that," Kovtonenko said.

Andriy Hunder is the head of publicity for one of Ukraine's largest mobile phone operators, UMC. He also believes advertising in the Ukrainian language is effective and has helped UMC reach a large number of people:

"Really, from day one, all of our advertising has been in Ukrainian, so the law has had no major influence on the company, as we were advertising in Ukrainian anyway. So there's been no major change, and especially all our outdoor advertising was in Ukrainian in all regions of Ukraine, so I can't see any drastic changes in our approach to advertising," Hunder said.

Hunder says he believes that predictions that the new regulation will bring ruin to Russian-language publications are wrong.

"I was speaking to a number of senior editors the day before yesterday, and we've been doing our own monitoring, looking at whether the volume of advertising has decreased. And what the editors have said and what the results have shown is that the volume of advertising remains at the same level that it was. So there has been no visible decrease in the level or amount of advertising," Hunder said.

Ironically, one newspaper that fears it may be critically wounded by the new rules is the "Kyiv Post" -- Ukraine's largest English-language newspaper and widely acknowledged as its best. "The Kyiv Post" relies on ads in English for its mainly foreign audience of business people, diplomats, and visitors.

The State Committee for Technical Regulation and Consumer Rights, which will enforce the new law, says its effect on other foreign media such as English-language publications was unforeseen and that they will try to ensure there are no adverse consequences for them.

Many people believe the new measure is aimed specifically at curtailing the use of Russian. Ukrainian is only predominant in the western part of the country, which was incorporated into the former Soviet Union only in 1944. Prior to World War I, it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Most of present-day Ukraine was under Russian domination either as part of the tsarist empire or, subsequently, the Soviet Union and subjected to an array of pressures to replace the Ukrainian language with Russian.

After Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, attempts have been made to reverse the decay in the use of Ukrainian. It was enshrined in the constitution as the only state language. State employees, such as bureaucrats or teachers, have to demonstrate a proficiency in Ukrainian to get a job.

That has caused a lot of rancor among some of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population, estimated at around 10 percent of the total, as well as among some Russian-speaking Ukrainians. They have campaigned for Russian to be recognized as Ukraine's second state language.

The campaigners maintain the Ukrainian language regulations violate their human rights and that the introduction in many schools of Ukrainian as the main language of education is unfair.

But those who want to see the Ukrainian language more widely entrenched dismiss claims that Russian is being unfairly treated or edged out. Before going into advertising, Kovtonenko worked in the propaganda department of a political movement called Rukh, which spearheaded Ukraine's drive for independence. He is still involved in politics and says that it is the Ukrainian language that is in danger of being swamped by a mass of Russian-language media.

"There should be a fuss in Ukraine not because ads are to be in Ukrainian but that today all 20 of Kyiv's radio stations are Russian-language and all the songs they play are Russian, thus breaching Ukrainian laws," Kovtonenko said. "The Russian press wants to exclude the Ukrainian language completely and is doing that in a shameless way. The new owners of the television stations also conduct themselves in a shameless way and don't want to allow the Ukrainian language on the air. That's happening for one simple reason that in the last four years the Ukrainian government has allowed the sale of media outlets and only 3 percent of those have been left in Ukrainian control. Today, the majority of the owners of the new media -- television, radio, or print -- are Russians or their vassals in Ukraine. It's obvious they're never going to tolerate the Ukrainian language."

Kovtonenko says that what he calls the attack on the Ukrainian language is Russian government policy. Last month, the Ukrainian government condemned a statement by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Eleonora Mitrofanova that one of Moscow's foreign policy goals is to get official status for the Russian language in former Soviet republics.

But the Ukrainian government is conscious that the language issue is a dangerously volatile one in Ukraine and is treading warily and emphasizing that change will be gradual.

Last month, the Education Ministry announced plans to increase the number of schools where Ukrainian will be the language of tuition in areas where Ukrainians are currently a minority. In southern and eastern parts of the country, around 75 percent of schools teach in Russian, while in Crimea only four out of 640 schools teach in Ukrainian.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma went to Crimea to lay the foundation stone for the first Ukrainian-language college on the peninsula, where the majority of the population is ethnic Russian. He said the introduction of teaching in the Ukrainian language in Russian-speaking regions "must not be revolutionary" but rather "gradual and evolutionary."

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