On July 3, the Ukrainian Parliament passed the second draft of a language law that would grant official status to minority languages in areas in which they are spoken by at least 10% of the population. Its acceptance sparked furious protests outside Parliament, with riot police using batons and tear gas against demonstrators.
Some analysts maintain that the law would undermine the status of Ukrainian, which has been the only official state language since the country gained independence in 1991. Others anticipate a deepening of a regional divide between the Ukrainian-speaking Western regions, and the mainly Russophone areas of the south and east.
Yet as usual with events involving the ruling Regions Party and its president Viktor Yanukovych, there is more to this move than is at first evident.
The circumstances of the bill’s passing were calculated to inflame. It was introduced without forewarning, when many deputies and Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn were absent. It received votes from 248 deputies, well over the required minimum of 226. The Regions deputies were supported by the Communist Party and People’s Party. Speaker Lytvyn subsequently offered his resignation, but it was rejected by the assembly the following day. Seven deputies announced they were starting a hunger strike in protest. There were angry demonstrations in Kyiv and in the western Ukrainian city of L’viv, the heartland of Ukrainian speakers. Protests are also planned by the Ukrainian community abroad in centers like Toronto.
In theory the bill—it still requires the signatures of the President and Speaker before it becomes law—would mean that Russian would take on official status in 13 of Ukraine’s 27 designated regions, i.e. 11 “oblasts” (provinces) and the cities of Kyiv and Sevastopol. In the far western area of Transcarpathia, Hungarian would gain official status. In Chernivtsi and southwestern Odesa, the same would apply to Romanian and Bulgarian. On the Crimean peninsula, the Tatar language would also gain such status. Altogether, Ukraine would have 18 “official languages”!
There is little logic to its sudden passing other than perhaps to enhance the electoral standing of the Regions Party in Russian-speaking regions prior to the parliamentary elections, anticipated in October. Language issues are hardly a priority in a state riddled with corruption and human rights issues, and suffering a sharp economic downturn. And although tempers are frayed, the number of protesters is small. A mere 1,000 turned out in central Kyiv on July 4, for example, barely enough to cause a flutter on the bustling Khreschatyk.
Also, should the law attain official status its implementation would be a bureaucratic and financial nightmare. Indeed, a representative of the Finance Ministry, Valentyna Brusylo, commented, perhaps indiscreetly, that it would likely cost some $1.5-$2 billion to introduce. Such expenses in an election year would be an issue of much greater contention than the language law itself. The Ukrainian government is in financial trouble: it recently agreed terms for a $3 billion loan from China’s Eximbank, payment for which will be partly in exports of grain up to 2.5 million tons per year.
Third, why do Regions deputies need to introduce a law formalizing the status of Russian, which already enjoys a privileged position? No doubt it will impress Russian president Vladimir Putin who visits Ukraine on July 12. But the question has been dragged up, by Yanukovych and earlier presidents, at every election and then ignored once a new president entered office.
The answer to all these questions appears to be that it is a calculated ploy to inflame and divide residents of Ukraine, a diversion from other issues that should be considered more urgent. The electorate has been sidetracked for the past month by Euro-2012, a successful but costly soccer competition that was well organized and won convincingly by the Spanish. The language law is the new diversion.
After its passing, as opposition deputies gathered in the streets to protest, the remaining 73 deputies passed a total of 20 new laws in a single day. These included new subsidies for the Donbas coal mines, which are at the center of Regions’ power base, a new rail connection to Kyiv international airport, and more funding for the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the State Prosecutor. The costs of the new laws amount to billions.
Because so few deputies were present, others simply voted in their place, pressing the “yes” button in the absentees’ seats in order to secure a majority for each new law. The strategy could be seen as cynical. But Regions deputies habitually pay lip service to the democratic process while finding ways to circumvent it.
The uproar over the language bill may be justified. But it is also a diversion, carefully calculated so that deputies are preoccupied and the rules of Parliament can be circumvented. In the meantime the ruling elite of Ukraine fritter away state funds without a care for the long-term consequences.
The language law is simply impractical, but it is not the main issue. Language does not divide the residents of Ukraine. The real problem is the ruling Regions Party, which treats the country as a personal fiefdom to be robbed at will and finds ingenious ways to ensure that it can continue to do so.
This article first appeared in the Edmonton Journal, 7 July 2012. [http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/ideas/story.html?id=0a732fad-db3f-4777-b245-c73bcf13873f&p=2]