Well, well, well! (No not three holes in the ground from whence water can be drawn).
The current ruling Party of Regions, having failed to gather enough votes to give Russian equal status as a language of State as per Yanukovych’s presidential election promises, have yesterday managed to force through a bill giving Russian far more prominence as a regional language (into which we can read the East and the South of Ukraine) where the almost unanimously Russian as the first language and language of choice of the Ukrainians who live there.
(Very fortunate for me as my Ukrainian is quite poor but my Russian is OK and living in Odessa, Russian is most definitely the language of choice for the vast majority of Ukrainians who live here.)
Why the need for a bill to pass through parliament giving Russian an enhanced legal status regionally though? Russian is a protected minority language via the Constitution of Ukraine, one of the languages nominated and registered with the European minority languages legislation to which Ukraine has legally undertaken to protect for the Russian speakers, and when push comes to shove, you simply cannot make people speak Ukrainian over Russian as a law maker no matter how hard you try. People will speak in whatever language they choose.
The reason one suspects is now giving Russian an enhanced regional status (within the regions that opt to do so), is that the citizens (predominantly in the East and South) can now insure their children are educated in Russian speaking schools rather than schools teaching in Ukrainian and treating Russian as a foreign language, which technically it is, although to many, many millions of Ukrainians, it isn’t foreign at all but their language of choice.
One also suspects that elected regional officials will now feel far more comfortable (in the East and South) speaking Russian at public events instead of trying to stumble along in Ukrainian, a language with which many have never learned – And whilst similar in many respects Ukrainian and Russian are also quite distinctly different and as a public official stumbling through a public policy speech in a language you don’t really know, the occasional faux pas (or worse) is inevitable, not to mention most of your regional audience won’t really understand the language you are using either!
(The new law doesn’t only apply to Russian but seemingly to the other dozen and more minority languages as well – Such as Hungarian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, Tartar, German, Polish etc.)
However whilst it may seem a reasonable proposition to allow children, politicians and quite possibly regional administrative agencies to use Russian in Russian speaking regions, needless to say, the public figures from the centre and West of Ukraine are adamantly against giving Russian this enhanced status. As Ukrainian speakers they see any such enhanced status as an attack on all things Ukrainian and thus Ukrainian sovereignty itself.
In this they have a psychological point as well as a practical one. In fact, last week when the first attempt to get this bill trough the RADA was attempted, it ended up in a very undignified brawl (again, and not unusual for the Ukrainian parliament to resort to fisty-cuffs) by blocking the Speaker’s podium and preventing the bill being introduced.
Yesterday however, it was the ruling majority who made the better strategic plans and they physically formed a protective cordon around the Speaker’s podium to allow the bill to be introduced. Childish antics from parliamentarians quite possibly, but feelings run deep over the language issue. Out side the RADA, 6000 were protesting the language bill – About 3000 in favour and 3000 against. You see the political problem.
Now, to tell tales out of school, I can say that in Odessa over the past decade, my lad was taught in a standard Ukrainian school in Odessa that used Russian as the everyday language and taught Ukrainian as a foreign language to all intents and purposes, (can speaking and learning Ukrainian for 2 hours a week be classed and anything else?) – before this new bill was forced through the RADA yesterday. Thus the new bill effectively changed nothing other than to protect the school’s right to continue to do what it has always done.
Undoubtedly Mr Putin and the Russian State will be rather happy with yesterday’s result even though giving Russian a regional enhanced status is not anywhere near as prominent as giving it an equal status as a language of State.
Ms Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and all the other opposition personalities and MPs (who gather their support mostly from the centre and West of Ukraine) will be spitting feathers that they were tactically outsmarted yesterday and the bill passed with 234 votes in favour.
Despite this bill passing, the issue of language in Ukraine will remain a very emotionally charged one, and should the current opposition return to power, it is very probable this bill will be overturned. However, Arseniy Yatseniuk, who is not that unpopular in Odessa having once been a member of the Regional Administration, may have made an error after failing to defeat the bill in the RADA yesterday, by calling those who voted in favour of the bill “traitors.”
The inference that those who want to speak Russian, have their children educated in Russian as their first language and have the Regional Administrations deal with them in Russian (rather than Ukrainian) may cause him to lose votes here in the October parliamentary election. Try inferring a Welshman who speaks English as a preference over Welsh that he is some kind of traitor and then ask him for his vote. Not a particularly wise move.
Odessa is a city that normally votes Party of Regions but doesn’t always do so. The previous Mayor was not a Party of Regions man. He came from what is now an opposition party. He also spoke Russian rather than Ukrainian.
Personally, I believe the language of “The State” should only be Ukrainian as this is Ukraine. However, in the Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine it is important to convey any political or policy message in a language both the local politicians and local populations are completely, utterly and fully conversant in – to avoid any unintended errors or lack of understanding.
A very difficult and thorny political issue that, one suspects, has not gone away. Round 2 and a comeback by the current opposition and Ukrainian language is no doubt on the cards in the future. More fisty-cuffs when the second reading of the bill occurs? Who will tactically be the smarter to physically prevent or manage to allow the second reading to take place?