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The End Of Russian-Language Broadcasting In Ukraine?

Supporters of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists Ukraine's National Council for Television and Radio (NRPTR) on 14 April adopted an unexpected resolution that obliges all national and "interregional" (covering at least half of Ukraine's 25 regions) broadcasters to start broadcasting only in Ukrainian as of 19 April.

Broadcasts in other languages -- Ukraine's minority languages, including Russian -- will be allowed only at the regional and local levels in areas with significant ethnic-minority populations and with NRPTR approval of a relevant application from the ethnic community concerned. Moreover, even local and regional broadcasters are obliged to produce no less than 50 percent of their programs in Ukrainian.

The NRPTR is an eight-member body -- four members are delegated by the Verkhovna Rada and the other four by the president -- that is responsible for issuing broadcasting licenses. Licenses are usually granted for five-year periods. However, the NRPTR does not have the legal instruments needed to revoke broadcast licenses; this can only be done by a court. Therefore, the NRPTR also signaled -- apparently, to lend more weight to its 14 April resolution -- that it is going to request that the Verkhovna Rada give it the right to cancel broadcast licenses after issuing three official warnings to a broadcaster. However, as matters now stand, the NRPTR can penalize broadcasters only by refusing to extend their licenses when they expire.

The 14 April resolution also calls for a month-long monitoring of Ukrainian broadcasters to examine how they react to the new regulations, as well as for the creation of a permanent working group to deal with problems pertaining to the use of the Ukrainian language on radio and television. It also requires that all licenses issued by the NRPTR after 18 April will stipulate that nationwide and interregional broadcasters use only Ukrainian in their programs. The NRPTR said the broadcasters that currently operate under licenses requiring less than 100 percent Ukrainian-language programs will not have to apply for new licenses immediately.

The 14 April resolution was unexpected in at least two aspects. First, it came without any previous announcements or public consultations. After all, language is among the most sensitive and controversial public issues in Ukraine. According to the 2001 census, Ukrainian was declared as the mother tongue by 67.5 percent of Ukraine's 48.5 million people. However, according to estimates, at least 50 percent of Ukrainian citizens -- notably those living in the east and south of the country -- prefer speaking Russian. Second, the conditions of existing broadcast licenses -- which routinely stipulate that programs in Ukrainian should account for 50 percent or 75 percent of the entire programming -- have so far been ignored by many broadcasters without any legal or other consequences. Why should the situation be altered right now?

The resolution reportedly has not caused any immediate changes in the proportion of Ukrainian-language and Russian-language programs on most Ukrainian radio and television stations. It seems that most Ukrainian broadcasters do not believe the resolution is serious and are treating it as a recommendation rather than an order. Predictably, the resolution was harshly criticized by the Ukrainian Communist Party, which is supported mainly in Russian-speaking regions. The Communists claim that the decision to switch to 100 percent broadcasting in Ukrainian will "instigate hostility among peoples living in our state."

"Ukraine is becoming a unique state in Europe, a state losing its indigenous language, which is being pushed out by official languages of other states," NRPTR Deputy Chairman Vitaliy Shevchenko said. Even if Shevchenko's assessment of the language situation in Ukraine is exaggerated, it is certain that the Ukrainian language needs "affirmative action" from the state to become a full-fledged means of communication in Ukraine's public life. But it is also very doubtful that an administrative ban of the Russian language in broadcasting -- a method strikingly reminiscent of the Soviet-era command system's practices -- is a step in the right direction. Many would argue that the publication of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels in Ukrainian translation would be a far better contribution to the promotion of Ukrainian than any ban on using Russian in Ukraine.

It is hardly imaginable that lawmakers -- from both the left wing and the right wing of Ukraine's political scene -- will heed the NRPTR and give the council the right to revoke the licenses of broadcasters who are reluctant to switch entirely to Ukrainian. First, in a presidential election year, such an administrative tool in the hands of a state body could easily be misused for the politically motivated closures of media outlets. Second, the rekindled stir around the language issue could hurt both government-supported and opposition presidential candidates rather than boost their election chances, although it is difficult to say at the moment who would be the biggest loser. The problem is that most people in Ukraine, both Ukrainian and Russian speakers, are very fond of many of the programs imported from Russia -- especially some of the live talk shows -- and could become very angry if they were to give them up because those shows are not in Ukrainian. Most likely, the NRPTR resolution of 14 April will be "inconspicuously forgotten" -- at least, for the time being.

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