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Ukraine: Kyiv Imposes Controversial Ban On Russian-Language Broadcasts

Language is a sensitive subject in Ukraine, which has a large ethnic Russian population and where even native Ukrainians often prefer speaking Russian over Ukrainian. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on a controversial new regulation set to increase the use of the Ukrainian language in the country's broadcasting.

Prague, 16 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's broadcasting regulators this week (15 April) introduced a requirement making it mandatory for national television and radio broadcasters to use the Ukrainian language.

The ruling comes into force on 19 April. Local broadcasts in other languages will only be allowed in areas with a significant ethnic-minority population.

If Ukraine wants to survive as an independent nation, it has to protect its language.
Ukraine last year signed a European Union charter which obliges signatories to help preserve minority languages, including in the mass media.

The agreement covers 13 minority languages in Ukraine, including Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hebrew. However, it is Russian that is Ukraine's largest "minority" language -- and the one that often provokes controversy.

Some 67 percent of Ukrainian citizens call Ukrainian their mother tongue. But large numbers of Ukrainians -- notably in the east and south of the country -- routinely use the Russian language.

Ukraine's large Russian minority -- roughly 17 percent of the country's 49 million people -- also mainly speak Russian as their primary language.

Ukrainian is the country's only state language. But Russian-speakers have often demanded their language also be given official status.

Russian-speakers complain that since independence, most schools offer courses mainly in Ukrainian and state jobs require proficiency in Ukrainian. Such policies, they say, are discriminatory.

But despite attempts to broaden the popular use of Ukrainian, especially in television and radio, many broadcasters use Russian almost exclusively.

Vitaliy Schevchenko is the deputy head of the National Council on Matters Pertaining to Television and Radio. He says a recent survey indicated how pervasive the Russian language has become in Ukrainian broadcasting: "When, last fall, we carried out a general survey, we saw that in eight regions -- Crimea-Sevastopol, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizhya, Don, Luhansk and Mykolaiv -- the proportion of the Ukrainian language used in the broadcasts varied from
14 percent in Crimea to 46 percent in Mykolaiv. Well, you know these patterns are threatening."

That study prompted the head of the television and radio council, Borys Kholod, to decree that all national broadcasters must use Ukrainian.

Kholod said it was the first time the council had considered the language issue in such detail: "This question arose for the first time in the 10-year existence of the national council. The issue of the Ukrainian language in society and in our independent country is today a very serious problem, not only for television and radio but for all the mass media, including publishing."

Kholod says that if Ukraine wants to survive as an independent nation, it has to protect its language.

But many details on the ruling's implementation have yet to be worked out. Schevchenko says there are few resources to dedicate to resolving language issues. There are hopes a new tracking group will help smooth the process: "The decision was also taken to form a commission to monitor these processes. Because the constitution clearly states what the state language is, but the state does not have an official body to look after the development of that language and ensure that it is routinely used."

Raul Tchilakhava is one of the people who has been invited to sit on the commission. An ethnic Georgian, he serves as the deputy head of Ukraine's National Committee on Nationality and Immigration.

Tchilakhava says he does not believe Russian-speakers will be hurt by the new ruling, which provides minority groups with the right to broadcast in their native language. Areas of Ukraine with large ethnic-Russian populations will continue to receive Russian-language television and radio programs.

In any case, says Tchilakhava -- who is an accomplished poet in both Georgian and Ukrainian -- it is the Ukrainian language that is in danger, not Russian: "Even future philologists -- lecturers in Ukrainian language and literature -- prefer to talk amongst themselves in Russian. I'm not even talking about the general situation, say in the sphere of transport or on the streets or various meeting places, where the Russian language absolutely dominates."

The ruling has already come under criticism. Ukraine's Communist Party, which counts the Russian-speaking regions among its main areas of support, says the decision will, quote, "instigate hostility between peoples living in our state."

A number of private broadcasters have also slammed the ban.

Past initiatives to broaden the use of Ukrainian have met with limited success. A law introduced last year making it mandatory to produce Ukrainian-only advertising has been widely ignored.

Schevchenko, of the television and radio council, says Ukraine faces the prospect of Russian superseding Ukrainian: "Our working group that collected data has identified a situation whereby Ukraine is becoming a unique country in Europe because it is losing its own language, which is being squeezed out by the official language of another country."

Ukrainian officials say they are considering the creation of a special department to actively promote the use of Ukrainian.