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Russian Gains New Status in Ukraine
15 October 2012
Russian Gains New Status in Ukraine

Russian Gains New Status in Ukraine
By Kerry Drew and Karen Virk
Language Connections


The history of the Ukraine is closely tied in with that of Russia. Although Ukraine has been independent for the past twenty-one years, Russian influence still remains. 

In the past, there were two official languages in the country: Ukrainian and Russian. Currently Ukraine has only one official national language: Ukrainian. This means that all official documents and verbal communication must be in Ukrainian. However, colloquially, citizens of Ukraine use both Russian and Ukrainian on a daily basis. Ukrainian is mostly used in the west and north while Russian is mostly used in the east and south. While some use one language exclusively, others use both on a daily basis depending on which setting they are in. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Russian has become a language used in private or among family and friends. The number of Russian schools has decreased in the last 21 years, so most children learn Ukrainian in school regardless of which language they speak at home.

This past summer, the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanokovych, proposed a bill which stated that minority languages which had a population of speakers of 10% or more could be voted in by a regional government to become an official language within that region. The proposition of the new regional language law produced mixed reactions.

Languages which fall under the 10% rule include:  Russian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Gagauz, Yiddish, Crimean Tatar, Moldovan, German, Greek, Polish, Romani, Romanian, Slovak, Hungarian, Rusyn, Karaim and Krymchak. [1]

Historically, the Russian language has been one of two official languages in the Ukraine. Since 1989, however, Russian has had no standing in Ukraine and has been used only colloquially. The new law, however, it will: “… [give] Russian the status of [a] regional language, approving its use in courts, schools and other government institutions in the country's Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions.”[2] According to opposition deputy Ksenya Lyapina "With this law, the Russian language will become a de facto government language for eastern Ukraine. It's very dangerous for Ukraine. It can lead to the division of the country."[3] Language is always a major part of any culture. For this reason it is important to ethnic Ukrainians that they are able to maintain their own cultural identity which is closely tied in with keeping their native language. On the other hand, Russian speakers living in the southern and eastern parts of the country support Russian as an official regional language largely for the same reasons.  This has created an obvious rift between those who support and those who oppose the law.

Interestingly enough, the general population of Ukraine is not the only group to oppose the law. In order to pass a law, both the President and the Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, have to approve the bill. On July 4th, Volodymyr Lytvyn, resigned from his position as Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament in protest of the voting on the bill since it occurred behind closed doors with limited part members, which brings to question the legality of the vote.  In response the Verkhovna Rada held two votes to override his resignation and in the end refused his resignation. Several infringements occurred regarding the process of passing the law:

  • The first reading took place on June 5, a vote without discussion and with a large number of parliamentarians absent.
  • The requisite month had not passed for the second reading, nor had many amendments been discussed and added when, in the absence of Lytvyn and the deputy speaker, the ruling Party of Regions bulldozed a “vote” through in record time.[4]

On July 31st, Lytvyn signed the bill which was also signed by President Yanokovych soon after. Unfortunately these infringements have served to increase the doubts of those who oppose this law; many going as far as to accuse the president of passing the law in an effort to gain support from Russian speakers in the next election. 

As of the end of September, 15 municipalities had voted Russian in as an official language. Romanian has official status in two municipalities while Moldovan and Hungarian have official status in one each. This summer President Yanokovych stated that he would add amendments to the law although he has not clarified what those amendments might entail.

For further reading:



[1] http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/language-law-comes-into-force-in-ukraine-311340.html 
[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/04/ukrainians-protest-russian-language-law
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/04/ukrainians-protest-russian-language-law
[4] http://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/op-ed/language-law-vs-ukraines-constitution-311011.html



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