Language Politics: The Controversial Debate on Russian as a Second Language in Ukraine
Ukrainian Language Law Sparks Controversy
In a move that has been described as both divisive and discriminatory by Russia, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law in 2019 granting special status to the Ukrainian language and making it mandatory for public sector workers. This law, which required all citizens to have knowledge of the Ukrainian language and made it a compulsory requirement for civil servants, soldiers, doctors, and teachers, was championed by then-President Petro Poroshenko.
The law sparked controversy due to the language dynamics within Ukraine. Ukrainian is the predominant language in western Ukraine, while Russian is predominant in much of the east. Both languages are widely spoken in the capital, Kiev, with many citizens fluent in both. The television industry often operates bilingually, with hosts and guests frequently alternating between the two languages.
The Historical Context of Language Politics in Ukraine
Language has become a sensitive issue in Ukraine since 2014 when a pro-Russian president was overthrown in a popular revolt and Russia responded by annexing the Crimea region and supporting a pro-Russian separatist uprising in the east. Part of the separatists’ argument was that eastern Ukrainians were victims of growing discrimination against Russian speakers. On the other hand, some Ukrainian speakers argue that the prominence of Russian is a remnant of the Soviet era that undermines Ukraine’s identity.
Language politics have been at the center of Ukraine’s political discourse for years. Poroshenko, for instance, placed the promotion of the Ukrainian language at the heart of his unsuccessful re-election campaign. His successor, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor who primarily speaks Russian in public, expressed his intention to review the new law to ensure that the rights of all citizens were respected.
Russia’s Reaction and Claims of Discrimination
Russia has criticized the new law, arguing that it deepens divisions within Ukrainian society and imposes severe limitations on the use of Russian in Ukrainian public life. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that the law would impose severe limitations, including in some cases bans, on the use of Russian in Ukrainian public life. Viktor Medvedchuk, a prominent figure in Ukraine’s Russia-friendly opposition, argued that it violated the constitutional rights of millions of Ukrainian-Russian speakers.
The Impact of the Law on Media and Software
The legislation has significant implications for both the media and software industries in Ukraine. It requires TV and film distribution firms to ensure 90 percent of their content is in Ukrainian and mandates that the proportion of Ukrainian language printed media and books be at least 50 percent. Computer software must also have a Ukrainian language interface, although the law allows the use of English or any other official language of the European Union.
Citizens’ Response to the Language Law
The reaction to the language law among Ukrainian citizens has been mixed. While hundreds of people gathered outside parliament to support the law, there have also been protests against it. Critics warn that the elevated status of the Russian language could discourage Russian speakers inside the country from learning Ukrainian, thereby prolonging their dependence on Russia. Advocates, on the other hand, argue that the law protects the rights of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, particularly in the country’s east.
The controversy over the language law in Ukraine reflects deep-seated tensions within the country over national identity and the influence of Russia. While some view the promotion of the Ukrainian language as a critical step in asserting Ukraine’s independence and distancing it from its Soviet past, others argue that the law discriminates against Russian speakers and exacerbates divisions within the country.
Subscribe to BNN Breaking
Sign up for our daily newsletter covering global breaking news around the world.