A Pro-European integration protester waves a Ukrainian national flag as she stands on a statue during a mass rally at Independence Square in Kiev
A Pro-European integration protester waves a Ukrainian national flag as she stands on a statue during a mass rally at Independence Square in Kiev Reuters

The deepening crisis in Ukraine involves not only issues of political sovereignty, European integration and Russian hegemony, but also language and its relationship to nationalism and ethnic identity. Immediately after the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych from power on Feb. 22, the Ukrainian Parliament repealed a controversial law passed in 2012 that allowed the use of "regional languages" – including Russian, Hungarian, Romanian and Tatar -- in courts and certain government functions in areas of the country where such speakers constituted at least 10 percent of the population. (In 1991, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent state of Ukraine established Ukrainian as its sole official language.)

Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov has since vetoed that repeal, but the episode has alarmed many of Ukraine’s Russian speakers and others. “Just as the law itself was meant to validate the continued use of Russian in Ukraine for a wide range of activities, the move to cancel that law was perceived as taking away rights enjoyed by the Russian-speaking population, and potentially a sign that there might be growing discrimination against them,” explained Olga Oliker, a security and defense analyst at the RAND Corp.

Indeed, after the 2012 law was passed, 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions, mostly in the industrial eastern parts of the country, quickly adopted Russian as a second official language. (But even then, the passage of the law triggered demonstrations in the streets and even fistfights in Parliament.) Dr. Vitaly Chernetsky, associate professor in the department of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Kansas, commented that the 2012 language law was poorly written and roundly criticized by many experts at the time. “Additionally, no budgetary allocations were made at the time, so passing this law was, in effect, a purely symbolic measure intended to divert the attention of the Ukrainian electorate from corruption and economic problems,” Chernetsky said in an interview.

According to the CIA/World Factbook, the Russian language is spoken by about one-fourth (24 percent) of the Ukrainian population, while about one-sixth (17.3 percent) of the Ukrainian population are ethnic Russians. RT, a Russian television network, claims that 40 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian, (presumably including non-Russians). Russian speakers are concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine – while in the southern autonomous region of Crimea (where the Russians have had a naval base on the Black Sea for more than 200 years), an estimated 60 percent of the population are ethnic Russians.

The Ukraine Parliament reportedly will consider yet another language law in the coming weeks or months – it is unclear if it will again allow a multi-language framework for the country’s social and political life.

Svitlana Melnyk, a lecturer in Slavic languages and literatures at Indiana University-Bloomington, argued that the establishment of monolingualism formed a key part of solidifying Ukraine's national identity. "For post-Soviet independent countries and Ukraine in particular, the state language has symbolic meaning and a great symbolic value in the process of nation-building,” she said. “This is a national symbol along with the flag and anthem. The language issue is highly politicized in Ukraine, and its future management heavily depends on the evolving political situation."

Melnyk added that she thinks that Ukrainian should be “the only state language” in the country. “At the same time, the [new language] law should consider the current socio-linguistic situation and protect the languages of national and ethnic minorities in the country," she said.

But the temporary repeal of the 2012 law sparked outrage from Ukraine to Moscow and even in the European Union. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev condemned the law's abolition. “We do not understand what is going on there. There is a real threat to our [Russian] interests and to the lives and health of our citizens,” he said at a press conference, adding that the new interim government in Kiev lacks legitimacy. Similarly, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, characterized the law’s repeal as an “attack on the Russian language in Ukraine” and a “brutal violation of ethnic minority rights.”

Outside of Russia, the European Parliament even passed a resolution calling on the new Ukraine regime to respect the rights (and languages) of its minority population. “The Parliament of Ukraine has made what I believe to be a mistake... canceling a law on regional languages,” Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told CNN. “The new Ukrainian government should signal very eloquently to the ethnic minorities in Ukraine that they are welcome in Ukraine; that they are going to be part of the new Ukraine. And also Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe, [with] its laws on protecting minorities.”

Separately, in response to the gathering storm in Ukraine, some nationalist lawmakers in Moscow, led by the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, have called for the fast-tracking of Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians in Ukraine. LPDR MP Ilya Drozdov has already tabled a bill that would grant Russian citizenship to Ukrainian-Russians within six months of proving their ethnicity. “The adoption of this amendment would allow [us] to lawfully use the migration potential of Ukrainian citizens of Russian ethnicity who desire to get Russian citizenship,” Drozdov explained. RT reported that more than 2 million residents of the former Soviet republics have received fast-tracked Russian citizenship since the fall of the Soviet Union – even including people not of ethnic Russian origin, like the South Ossetians of Georgia, who speak an Iranian-related language.

Meanwhile Ukrainian nationalists, particularly members of the ultra-right Svoboda (Freedom) party led by Oleg Tyahnibok, have even threatened to ban the Russian language completely and even strip the Ukrainian citizenship of the nation's Russian speakers. Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, in a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, expressed their grave concerns about another Svoboda-proposed bill that would essentially ban all Russian language media in Ukraine (which Svoboda has defended by citing that Russian reports of the turmoil in Ukraine have been tarred with bias). That bill would prohibit from Ukraine any media from nations that have not ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television -- Russia has signed the convention, but has not ratified it yet.

“Russia is not a party to the convention, but it does not prevent us from broadcasting all across Europe. No EU member makes any problems for our broadcasts. If such a decision is taken in Ukraine, it would be a serious violation of the freedom of speech,” Lavrov said at a media conference.

With respect to the prevalence of Russian language, Chernetsky also noted if one looks at an average Ukrainian newsstand, one will find that about 90 percent of the publications are in Russian, even in the areas where the majority of the population speaks Ukrainian. “The Russian language also dominates the radio,” he said. “The only segment of the media where the Ukrainian language predominates is the national-level television channels.”

Oliker noted that while Ukraine has some strident far-right groups, including Svoboda and Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), there are also more measured voices that recognize that Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country and which have absolutely no interest in denying anyone their citizenship on ethnic grounds. “Emotions are of course running very high right now, but I think most Ukrainian leaders, including the leadership of Svoboda, know they stand to lose far more than they stand to gain by taking action against the ethnic Russian minority,” she noted. “That said, the situation bears watching, because people are very angry and frightened, because one cannot ignore the ethnic undertones to the anger or the fear, and because elements of Svoboda, and certainly Pravyi Sektor, do hold ultra-nationalist views.”

Russian and Ukrainian are closely related Slavic tongues, but they are also distinct languages with separate ethnic and national identities. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Russian-language activists in Ukraine have long wanted to make Russian a second official state language, citing such scenarios in multi-lingual countries like Canada and India. “There is this pervasive suggestion that if you speak Russian, you’re not a loyal or true Ukrainian. This makes Russian-speakers feel like second-class citizens,” Ruslan Bortnik, vice chairman of Russian-Speaking Ukraine, an advocacy group, told the Monitor.

Of course, Ukrainian nationalists fear the further encroachment of Russian into its national fabric. “If Russian were an official language, the main fear is that it would be a wide-open door for Russian influence in Ukraine,” said Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the Center for European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev.