Playing the Identity Card

Mykola Riabchuk

If one observes a significant number of politicians talking about the “protection of Russian language” and “closer ties with Russia,” one can be sure that an election campaign in Ukraine is in full swing. The goal of the rhetoric is not only to mobilize the numerous Russophile / Sovietophile electorate in the densely populated industrialized South East. Another goal is to send a proper signal to Kremlin and hook its powerful political, economic and propagandistic support. In a country divided almost equally between pro-Western and pro-Russian parts, anything that can tip the balance is readily employed.

The identity issue is strongly infused in Ukrainian politics, and language is merely part of it. Its role is primarily symbolical since virtually everybody in Ukraine has some command of both Ukrainian and Russian, and definitely everybody understands both languages. Conversation where one person speaks Russian and the other one speaks Ukrainian is not unusual, both in private or public spheres such as TV, and parliament or government offices. It is not the issue of communication actually, that causes the rift but a matter of attitude: either respectful or scornful. For years, Ukrainian was the language of the despised majority – enslaved peasants of tsarist nobleman or kolkhoz bosses. The more advanced, urbanized, educated world spoke Russian. This left a heavy imprint of superiority on one part of the population and inferiority on the other.

Today, the empathy with Ukrainian entails a whole set of attitudes toward the colonial past and national liberation, historical heroes and villains, symbols and narratives. Within this mindset, Russia is the main “Other” from which Ukrainians should decouple and emancipate, whereas Europe is the main “Us,” the civilizational space where Ukrainians presumably “always belonged” and now should “return.” The antithetical attitude stands typically for colonialism denial and normalization of all its legacies. The past is considered as the history of Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood rather than domination, Russification is seen as a natural process rather than a result of specific policies, and the West is perceived as the main “Other,” whereas Russia and all the post-Soviet space is the main “Us.” It is not ethnicity, language, political preferences or regional belonging that divide Ukrainians but, rather, values and attitudes, even though a significant correlation between all these markers can be easily found.

This leads to another Ukrainian paradox. On the one hand, as opinion surveys reveal, the language issue per se stands very low on the list of people’s concerns, far behind unemployment, poverty, criminality, and corruption that top the list. Yet, at the same time, nothing divides Ukrainians so much and sparks such heated debates as identity-related issues. This tempts politicians to play the language card, which is an easy task since no efforts to solve the real bread-and-butter issues are required in this case. It is sufficient to advertise themselves as “our bad boys” with the only virtue of being “ours.”

Ukraine is heading towards parliamentary elections scheduled by the end of October, and the Ukrainian language has already fallen prey to a highly unscrupulous election campaign. Back in July, shortly after the UEFA cup competition ended in Kyiv, the Ukrainian parliament passed the bill “On the fundamentals of the national language policy.” The document stipulates that any of 18 “regional and minority” languages spoken by 10 (and more) percent of the people in a certain administrative region can be used in that region as the “official” language alongside Ukrainian.

In fact, the law cares about only one language, Russian, which, ironically, does not need any protection since it dominates nearly all the territory and virtually all the spheres of public life in Ukraine. By the same token, one may protect English in Ireland or Spanish in Peru. The main goal of the document is not to secure the right of the Russophone citizens to use Russian since such a right is enshrined in Ukraine’s Constitution and in the 1989 “Law on Languages.” The main goal is to secure the right of post-Soviet bureaucracy not to learn and to use Ukrainian under any circumstances. No provisions require service for Ukrainophones in Ukrainian, or the use of Russian alongside Ukrainian rather than instead of it. The law gives a free hand to state officials to choose the language of work at their convenience, regardless of preferences of individual citizens, hence there is little doubt what the traditionally Russian-speaking and Soviet-thinking bureaucracy will choose.

Even though the sponsors of the new law refer to the Western experience of bilingualism, neither Finland nor Switzerland is a relevant analogue here. Rather, it is Belarus where a similar Soviet-style law and hypocritical “laissez-faire” policy have already transformed Belarusian speakers into second-class citizens and brought the Belarusian language to the verge of extinction. A similar law in Ukraine evoked very critical comments from the expert community, NGOs, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Venice Commission. Its letter in many cases contradicts the Ukrainian constitution, its spirit runs against the relative balance of intergroup interests, and the way it was rubber-stamped in the parliament is outrageous since deputies considered no conclusions of the respective parliamentary committees or amendments discussed, and many procedural technicalities were violated.

The further irony of the story is that the controversial law, as new surveys reveal, brought the dominant Party of Regions very little electoral gain. Analysts wonder whether this step was another miscalculation of the provincial elite, unable to grasp the complex reality and predict the inevitable backfire and various side effects – something that also happened in 2010 when the Black Sea Fleet base was conceded to Russia for virtually nothing, or last year when former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was imprisoned. Others argue, however, that this is a strategic move aimed at systemic emasculation of Ukrainian identity and, thereby, weakening the power base of the Orange opponents.

Both explanations may hold some truth but the main goal of the language law seems to be highly manipulative. It targets both supporters and opponents in the sense that it introduces false agenda into the election campaign. It shifts attention from the bread-and-butter issues on which the incumbents, with their disastrous social and economic policies, have little to say, toward issues concerning which any trickster and demagogue can pretend to be a “Great Leader.” Part of this plan is to make the opposition play this game: to defend language rather than the rule of law, and to fight remote Russia and its mythical “fifth column” rather than the real cheaters and robbers that run the country. Back in 2004, the Ukrainian people were victorious in a battle against the corrupt regime precisely because they rejected this false agenda and fought for fair elections and human dignity, for justice and decency, rather than language and other identity issues, however important they might be eventually. It remains to be seen whether the government’s manipulative strategies will be more successful this time.




Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


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  2. Mike

    I know that in southeastern Ukraine Russian, not Ukrainian is a dominant language after long subjugation of Ukraine by Russian imperialism in the past and as a result of past forceful artificial Russification of Ukraine. But in my view historical injustice to Ukraine by Russia must be rectified in all respects, and the Ukrainian language must again be the major language in southeastern Ukraine too because according to the last official census in Ukraine approximately 78% of citizens of Ukraine claimed to be of Ukrainian ethnicity. Russian linguistic imperialism on the territory of other nations outside Russia must end. It’s long long overdue. Of course Russian people in Ukraine can communicate in Russian between themselves and the Russian community in Ukraine must have opportunities to preserve their language and culture, but Russians living in Ukraine must also know and use Ukrainian in communication with Ukrainian people. I think Russians in Ukraine and the Russian authorities try to impose Russian as the main language in Ukraine even now, and to restrict the use of Ukrainian as much as possible by preserving the past Russification of Ukraine. It is long overdue to teach, to learn and to use more Ukrainian than Russian in the media and in institutions in Ukraine.

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