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Ukraine: Survey Shows Support For Ukrainian and Russian Languages

By Stefan Korshak and Vitaly Sych

Kyiv, 11 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Most Ukrainians would like to keep Ukrainian as the sole language for government use, but an even larger percentage would like to give the Russian language some official status, according to a just-completed Ukrainian Surveys & Market Research/Kyiv Post poll.

The survey also confirmed Ukraine's east-west linguistic divide, with respondents from the West more likely to favor the Ukrainian language while respondents from the East and South were much more favoring Russian.

But the poll brought some surprises. Most notably, the results show that the younger a person is, the more likely he or she is to favor the Russian language.

Comparisons with the Soviet era are impossible, as no such surveys were taken. But the results suggest that the current policy of conducting all public education in the Ukrainian language has so far failed to halt a long-term trend toward linguistic Russianization in Ukraine.

The primary language in western provinces and in some rural areas, Ukrainian was confirmed in the 1996 Constitution as the sole "state language." This means that all government documents, public education and commercial contracts must be in the Ukrainian language, although such rules are less likely to be enforced in Russian-speaking regions.

Out of 1,000 people polled throughout Ukraine, more than 70 percent said they favored giving Russian some official status, but almost 60 percent were against making Russian a state language.

The results are no mandate for radical change: slightly more than 30 percent favored keeping Ukrainian as the sole state language while giving Russian legal status in the commercial sphere only, while 24.2 percent favored the status quo. But 36 percent favored making Russian a second state language, and 4.6 percent favored making Russian the sole state language. And on the other hand, 4.1 percent approved of "completely banning the Russian language from Ukraine."

In the East and South, resistance to current policy is strong: solid majorities there favored putting Russian on an equal legal footing with Ukrainian, while about a quarter of respondents preferred merely recognizing Russian in the commercial sphere.

The South -- most of which was opened to Slavic settlement by Russian imperial expansion -- was the most pro-Russian: more people there favored making Russian the sole state language (8 percent) than favored the status quo (6.2 percent).

Likewise, anti-Russian sentiment was strong in the West. Less than a third (29 percent) there favored recognizing Russian in any way, while more than half (54.7 percent) favored the status quo and 16.1 percent favored banning Russian.

The capital Kyiv differed from the North as a whole. In both the city and the region, nearly half of the respondents favored recognizing Russian in the commercial sphere. But whereas in the region 25 percent favored the status quo and 22.6 percent favored making Russian a state language, in Kyiv 37.1 percent favored the status quo and only 12.7 percent favored making Russian a state language.

Ukraine's handling of ethnic and language issues has been a relative success. Analysts here and abroad have long predicted growing ethnic tension between Ukrainian nationalists in the West and ethnic Russians in the East and Crimea. Ukrainians appear to be fairly comfortable with not one but two functional national languages.

The survey confirmed that, despite its relegation to non-official status after the declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1991, Russian remains the primary spoken language in Ukraine. The proportion of respondents who said they spoke Russian at home outnumbered those who said they spoke Ukrainian at home by a ratio of 3 to 2.

Nationwide, almost half of respondents (45.6 percent) said they speak Russian at home, 29.8 percent said they speak Ukrainian and 23.5 percent said they speak both languages. The high number of bilingual households may be partly explained by the use of mixed Ukrainian-Russian dialects.

Younger people are considerably more likely to speak Russian. In the 30-39, 40-49, and 50-and-over age groups, 41 percent said they speak Russian at home, while 53 percent of people in their 20s and 57 percent of people aged 15 to 19 said they spoke Russian.

People in their 30s were most likely to speak Ukrainian, with 36 percent saying they speak it at home. That figure fell to 29 percent among people aged 50 and over and to 24 percent among people aged 15 to 19.

Younger people are also more likely to favor recognizing the Russian language legally. Among teenagers, 46.4 percent favored making Russian a state language, while 41.4 percent of those in their 20s favored the same, 40.1 percent of people in the 30s, 40.2 percent of people in their 40s, and just 37.3 percent of people aged 50 and over.