By Stephen Velychenko,
Resident Fellow, CERES, Research Fellow, Chair of Ukrainian Studies, Munk Center, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Action Ukraine Report
Washington, D.C., Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Ukraine faces the challenges of globalization without having overcome the legacies of its past.  Because independence came peacefully soviet Russophile elites remained in positions influence and Soviet migration policies that directed Russians into and Ukrainians out of Ukraine left them a constituency.

This immigration and "ethnic dilution", combined with deportations and millions of unnatural Ukrainian deaths between 1917 and 1947, created large Russian-speaking urban enclaves in the country's easternmost provinces.

Educational and media policies, meanwhile, channeled upwardly mobile non-Russian rural migrants into Russian-speaking culture and allowed urban Russians to work and satisfy their cultural/spiritual needs in Russian culture and language.

Second and third generation urban Russian immigrants and assimilated migrants thus spoke in Russian and were Moscow- oriented culturally and intellectually.  After 1991 most of the urban population accepted the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state, but few changed their language-use or Russian intellectual/cultural  orientation.

The neo-Soviet Russophile elite is now engaged in a campaign to make Russian an official "second language." The thin edge of the wedge is represented by local assemblies giving Russian legal status in their provinces --- as Luhansk has recently done.

Although the language issue is overshadowed in the domestic media by well-merited concern over poverty and corruption, and foreign neo-liberal commentators ignore cultural issues because they think them irrelevant, public language-use in Ukraine should not be overlooked as language-use is closely related to political orientations and Ukraine's future.

At a time when the educated in every country in the world, including China and Russia, are learning English as a second language, because English is the de facto world-language, a small group of Ukraine's neo-soviet Russophile politicians threaten to isolate the country from the rest of the world with their Russian language legislation. If enacted on the central level such a policy would throw Ukraine back culturally 100 years.

Scholars and intellectuals will learn whatever language they want whenever they want to. But not everybody is either a scholar or an intellectual and they have better things to do than learn languages. If Russian becomes the "second language" it will mean that the average Ukrainian citizen who wanted direct contact with the rest of the world would have to learn a third language.

Continued use of Russian for business and in the public sphere would also send the message that "capitalism and modernity speak Russian." It would reinforce Russophile orientations and the notion that Ukrainian is only suitable for domestic use.

Russian politicians with neo-imperial ambitions and their neo-soviet Russophile allies in Ukraine consciously obfuscate between Ukraine's Russians and all Ukraine's Russian speakers in an attempt to prove "anti-Russian discrimination." Anyone with elementary knowledge of either everyday life or the academic literature realizes such claims are demagogy.

The legacy of over 200 years of direct Russian rule is reflected still today fifteen years after independence as public life, business and the media are largely Russian-speaking outside Ukraine's three westernmost provinces.

At the beginning of this century, in a country where 20 percent of the population were Russian speaking Russians, 33 percent were Russian speaking Ukrainians and 47 percents were Ukrainian speaking Ukrainians; 10 percent of Ukraine's annual published book titles, 12 percent of its magazines, 18 percent of its television programs and 35 percents of its newspapers were in Ukrainian. Even in independent Ukraine, Ukrainian remains a minority language and, as such, according to EU norms qualifies for protection.

Although since the spring of 2004 national Ukrainian radio and television broadcasters had to use Ukrainian, almost all of them have   continued to use Russian. Much more than the legally permissible 50 percent of television programming is in Russian. The head of the National Television and Radio Council, Vitaliy Shevchenko, told Radio Free Europe that "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."

The government does not enforce its current language legislation. According to law, all government employees must speak Ukrainian, but most do not and continue to be paid nonetheless.

As of 2004, many teachers still used Russian in "Ukrainian language" schools, some of which also had separate Russian language classes. Parents who sometimes have to seek their children from "Ukrainian language" day-cares are shocked to approach their room and hear them singing Russian songs.

Secondary and university students studying non-Ukrainian subjects still rely overwhelmingly on Russian-language literature because there is little in Ukrainian on their subjects and libraries cannot afford to buy English-language publications. Attendants on Ukraine International Airlines use Russian to address passengers and either do not have or run-out of Ukrainian-language publications, while never running-out of Russian-language publications.

The pre-2006 neo-soviet Russophile dominated parliament, for its part, refused to follow the lead of the Russian government and abolish taxation on domestic publications, thus keeping Russian-language products in Ukraine cheaper than Ukrainian - or English-language products. Whether or not foreign corporations use Ukrainian inside their stores is ignored. McDonald's does use Ukrainian on its menus. Baskin Robbins does not.

The fact that Ukrainian speakers buy fewer books and audio visual products than Russian speakers because they are poorer also plays a role, as does the fact there is no Ukrainian low-brow urban mass-culture. Perhaps Ukraine's business moguls and tycoons could produce and sell Ukrainian-language audio-visual products and books for less than Russian-language products and
finance a Ukrainian-language mass culture. But they do not seem to have tried.

Ukrainian writers and producers and scholars, meanwhile, must accept the reality that modern mass culture does not consist only of "the classics" and that if Ukrainian is to win the market competition with Russian, trash must be written, filmed and recorded in Ukrainian - just like it is in Russian or in English or French.

The yellow press in all languages sells in millions of copies while the quality press sells only tens of thousands. Ukrainians watch Russian junk-films because there are no Ukrainian-language junk-films.

Ownership is also an important issue. It is thought that as much as 80 percent of Ukraine's media is owned either by Russians or Russophile Ukrainian citizens. Sixteen years after independence, however, no one really knows who owns Ukraine's media.

In 2006 the Ukrainian Helsinki Union, funded by George Soros's Renaissance Foundation, was able to reveal partial information about 10 stations. Foreign companies, of which 3 are Russian, own all or part of at least 9. Individuals unknown own all or part of 3. One channel is partly owned by a Russophile Ukrainian oligarch.

Mass-circulation Russian-language dailies like Bulvar, Kievskie Vedomosti and Fakty i Kommentarii are not merely sympathetic to neo-soviet Russophile politicians. They regularly belittle, ridicule and mock things Ukrainian, and highlight Russian rather than Ukrainian pop-stars, movies and television programs. Ukrainian-language anti-Russian opinion is limited to low-run fringe publications.

Russian popular newspapers and domination of the public sphere does not promote political loyalty to Russia. What it does do is promote Russophile orientations. This reinforces the old imperial Russian tie and impedes the creation of new ties with the EU and the rest of the world - which speaks English.

Logically, there is no necessary correlation between language-use and loyalties. Scots, Irish, Indians, Americans, Australians, and Canadians, have all expressed their nationalisms in English. Corsicans and Bretons have used French, and Latin Americans have used Spanish. Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Ukraine's Communist Party leaders speak Ukrainian when they must, using it as a medium for neo imperial and neo-soviet ideas.

It must be stressed  that few of Ukraine's Russian speakers support political reincorporation into Russia and that almost none have emigrated to Russia since 1991. Ukrainian Russian-speakers can be as pro-European Union as Ukrainian-speakers, Russian-speaking Ukrainians can be Ukrainian
patriots, and Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian political leaders sooner see themselves as representing a territorial region than a Russian-speaking population.

Russian-speaking Kyiv voted overwhelmingly for Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential elections and Russian speakers are as critical and contemptuous of the pervasive criminality and corruption of Ukraine's elites as are Ukrainian speakers.

However, because of tsarist and soviet politics Russian never became a medium for Ukrainian national ideas and today Russian is rarely used to publicly promote Ukrainian national ideas or integration with the EU. For this reason it is unlikely that Ukraine could become an eastern European Ireland. A Russian-speaking Luhansk province is more likely to gravitate towards Russia than the EU.

Consequently, to the degree that the correlation between Russian language-use and pro-Russian political orientations remains high, Russian as Ukraine's second language would reinforce Russophile orientations. Russian language-use in business and the public-sphere will return Ukrainian to its pre-1991 status a second-rate medium suitable only for folk-culture and market-place bartering.

Fostering public Russian language-use, in short, impedes Ukraine's integration with the EU and the rest of the world. Teaching Russian as a second language in Ukraine's schools will isolate it from the rest of the world. Teaching English would not.  

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