Tempest in the (linguistic) teapot?


A statement by a minor Donetsk official has become a subject of national controversy.

by Ilya Khineyko

The language issue is a perennial topic of Ukrainian politics. Ever since Ukraine adopted its current constitution in 1996, which made Ukrainian the sole official language of the country, the opponents of the current status quo have been trying to open up a debate on the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. It has been argued that the current lack of any formal provision regarding the status of Russian is discriminatory towards Russian-speakers who constitute – the estimates vary – up to 50% of the country’s total population and make up a majority in the East and South. The proponents of granting Russian the status of a second state or an official language have maintained that such a decision will be a step toward equality in the linguistic sphere. That is why a statement made by the secretary of Donetsk City Council, Mykola Levchenko, 29, has stirred a great deal of controversy and prompted a response from the influential figures of the Party of Regions, Hanna Herman and Taras Chornovil.

In an interview to the Russian news agency Regnum on February 21, he provided a candid and highly controversial assessment of the language debate. According to Levchenko, there is no doubt that Russian will become a second state language in Ukraine.

“The opponents of the Russian language understand very well the ramifications of this outcome. Ukrainian is a language of folklore, and, when Russian is granted state status, there will no need for people to use Ukrainian, which is not a language of science. It will not die, as it will remain a language of songs, jokes, and folklore, whereas Russian is a language of civilization… We ought to be realists. Making Russian a second state language is mere formality. There should only one state language in Ukraine – Russian. Sooner or later it will come to this.”

The next day, Hanna Herman, Viktor Yanukovych’s former press secretary and a member of the PR faction in Verkhovna Rada, issued a stern rebuke, calling Levchenko a provocateur and accusing him of causing great harm to the state and Ukrainian people. She also expressed hope that Levchenko’s “incomprehensible and unwise” statement will receive an appropriate reaction in Donetsk. Another influential deputy from the PR, Taras Chornovil, went even further.

“I consider it an example of primitive chauvinism… Unfortunately, in those regions where our party won [in the last elections] there has been less scrutiny with regard to certain appointments… The secretary of the Donetsk City Council has turned out to be a man who brings shame to our party”, he is quoted as saying.

A few days later, Novosti.dn.ua, reported that on February 26 Chornovil and Herman, sent a letter to the head of the Donetsk branch of the Party of Regions, Aleksandr Bobkov, demanding that Mykola Levchenko be expelled from the party. However, the next day, Herman denied this. She said,

“I don’t think we should organize a public debate on this. This conflict is an internal party matter that should be resolved within the Party of Regions… I know that Levchenko worked hard during the last elections and I hope he will change his mind once he’s learned more about Ukrainian language and culture.”

Although, the story has made big waves in the Ukrainian segment of the Internet as a popular topic of discussion on internet forums, no officials from the Party of Regions chose to speak publicly on this story. However, Ukrainian political analysts see the whole affair as evidence of an undercurrent of tensions within the Party of Regions. However, there was an interesting reaction from the fiercely pro-Yanukovych internet news bulletin, ZaDonbass. Although it distanced itself from Levchenko’s “inappropriate statement,” which it compared to the infamous remark by some Ukrainian intellectuals made during the 2004 presidential regarding Russian as a “language of crime and trash music.” However, its author argued that the reaction of Chornovil and Herman was completely disproportionate and furthermore revealed that these two representatives of Western Ukraine were out of touch with the electorate in Donetsk and the East. He reminded readers that during the last parliamentary elections in Sevastopol there were more votes cast for the Party of Regions than in the Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Volyn oblasts combined.

All in all, what should one make of this story? On the one hand, it confirms the fears of those in the national-democrat camp that at least one faction within the Yanukovych camp is being disingenuous in its support for the two-language solution in Ukraine. In that case, the young Donetsk secretary unwittingly spoke the truth regarding the party’s true intentions. However, it might also indicate a certain rift with the Party of Regions itself. While trying to gain a nation-wide appeal, it has necessarily drifted away somewhat from its power base in the Donetsk region. Perhaps, Levchenko’s words were more a reminder that at least some of the party’s radicals are not content with these changes.

 

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About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

2 comments

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