Russian As Ukraine’s Second Official Language:
President Yanukovich Should Keep His Promise

March 24, 2011
James George Jatras, Deputy Director

Summary: The administration of President Viktor Yanukovich has taken positive steps to allow greater regional use of the Russian language. However, these fall short of keeping his campaign promise to elevate Russian to the status of a second official national language on a par with Ukrainian. Treating Russian merely as the regional language of a “national minority” (Article 10 of the Constitution) sends the wrong message to both Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers and promotes regional and linguistic division of the country. Russian is not a “minority” or “foreign” language but a truly national language used by Ukrainians of all ethnic backgrounds. Promotion of Russian along with Ukrainian is important to Ukraine’s economic development and regional commercial prospects. Despite formidable hurdles, President Yanukovich should take action to keep his campaign promise as a matter of democratic accountability as well as good statecraft. A review of the experience of other bi- and multi-lingual countries points to the need for Ukraine to work towards a national accord on Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism to formalize a consensus on the nationwide use and protection of both languages.

Last year Ukraine took an important step in assuring local authorities’ accountability to citizens. In September the Verkhovna Rada took action on legislation to allow use of documentation in Russian or other regional languages, if the number of its speakers in a region exceeds 10%. The law also provides that the share of TV and radio broadcasts in Russian should not be less than 20%, and that school students and advertisers should be able to choose between Russian and Ukrainian.

In general, the 2010 law – which is being implemented slowly and unevenly – is a step forward for people living in areas where Russian is the most widely spoken language, in many cases the only language in common use. President Viktor Yanukovich should be commended for his administration’s action on it, as should Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnik, the main advocate of the Russian language in the current government – for which he has been the target of unfair and malicious attacks.

Last year’s law is consistent with Article 10 of the Constitution, which reads: “In Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed.” Predictably, however, there were protests among those who think the law is a first step to the disestablishment of Ukrainian as the sole national language, and even a danger to the future of the Ukrainian language. Conversely, the law falls far short of President Yanukovich’s campaign promise that Russian should become a second official state language in Ukraine.

A Bilingual Ukraine, or “Parallel Monolingualism”?

In addition to his repeated campaign promises that Russian should be made Ukraine’s second official national language on a par with Ukrainian, President Yanukovich also has declared that the position of the Russian language in Ukraine would be strengthened through implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. If actively put into practice, laws pursuant to the Charter would give each region of Ukraine the right to choose the language used in official communication and for teaching in schools.

Taken at face value, however, this approach could undermine Ukraine’s unity on a regional basis. This suggests that there is a tension, possibly a contradiction, between these two initiatives: (on the one hand) increased use of Russian as a regional language, and (on the other hand) the adoption of Russian as a second official, national language, along with Ukrainian.

The first raises the prospect of a “parallel monolingual” Ukraine, where speakers of Ukrainian and Russian – and maybe of other languages, like Romanian or Tatar – opt for increased use of their preferred language, and only that language. The second suggests wide proficiency in all areas of the country in both languages, as well as whatever truly local – third – languages might be in order.

It is easy to see how the first – which understands Russian only as a language of a “national minority,” a concept that suggests a host of other problems – can become factor in greater regional division in Ukraine. The second, however, if properly defined and implemented, can promote greater unity of Ukraine.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that in today’s world there is one language that absolutely everyone would be well-advised to learn how to speak. That is English, the only truly global language. This is of course very convenient for Americans generally, who have a reputation for not being able (or willing) to learn other languages. The commendable tradition of Ukraine is quite different, however. It should be remembered what Grand Prince Monomakh said in his famous testament, that his father, even while remaining at home, understood five languages, for which he was well known to those of other lands. Also of note is the example of Yaroslav the “Eight-Minded,” reputed to have spoken that many languages. This is a tradition that can be of great service today, not only for Ukraine, and English needs to be at the top of the list.

That said, below English there is another tier of languages that can be considered international for regional and historical reasons: the most obvious are the others, besides English, that are principal languages of the United Nations: Russian, Spanish, French, Arabic and Chinese. While none of these has the universal scope of English – and none probably will, though some people might suggest we keep an eye on Arabic and Chinese – each of these has its own profile and convenience in certain parts of the world. Others in this tier might include Portuguese and German. In the region of Europe where Ukraine is located, Russian remains a primary medium of international and inter-ethnic communication, along with local national languages like Ukrainian.

Russian Is Not a “National Minority” Language in Ukraine

To start with, it needs to be stated without equivocation that the reference to the Russian language in Article 10 of the Constitution is absurd on its face: it is just factually inaccurate to suggest that Russian is merely the language of a “national minority” in Ukraine:

  • First, Russian is the native language of millions of people in Ukraine who do not consider themselves ethnic Russians but ethnic Ukrainians, or who are members of other ethnic communities.
  • Second, Russian is the language of convenience for many of other millions more who, even if they consider Ukrainian their mother tongue, still find it natural and practical to use Russian for everyday purposes, to access Russian media, and so on, or to alternate between languages, or mix them.
  • Finally, Russian, even more than English, is still the best medium of communication not only with Russians but with people from other parts of the former USSR and much of eastern Europe, and even with various overseas locations. This facility is as much an advantage for Ukrainians as is knowledge of French for anyone working in Africa or knowledge of Spanish in Latin America – or for that matter, increasingly in North America too.

AIU consistently has called for Ukraine to be not a wall between Russia and the west, – as the former “Orange” government sought to do – but a bridge. That must first of all include the unique advantages Ukraine has in economic cooperation with Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union in building economic integration with Europe. Consider President Yanukovich’s announcement last year with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan for cooperation in the military and space industries, transport, heavy machinery, fuel and energy complex, agriculture and other sectors, including education and culture. The same could be said regarding projects announced during Russian Prime Minister Putin’s October 2010 visit: Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation and Ukraine’s state-owned manufacturer Antonov reached an agreement to launch a joint venture. The Ukrainian government and the TNK-BP group of companies signed a memorandum on the development of a gas field and the subsequent production of gas in the Donetsk region. Apart from this, Russia’s nuclear-fuel state producer, TVEL, and Ukraine’s state concern Nuclear Fuel will set up a joint venture to build a uranium processing plant in Ukraine.

When state officials and businessmen discuss these deals, does anyone imagine that such talks take place in any language other than Russian? Or that an interpreter is even needed? No one who has ever participated in such discussions in a state or business context mistakes the advantage held by participants who not only, literally, speak the same language but occupy a similar cultural universe closely connected with language. In Ukraine’s neighborhood, this is an advantage an English-, or French-, or German-speaker simply doesn’t have, and one that should not lightly be discarded by Ukraine.

Nationalist political agendas regarding language can have a negative impact on a country’s development. For an example relevant to the U.S. experience, when America’s former possession of the Philippines gained its independence, it was, for obvious reasons, the most English-speaking country in east Asia. But in the 1950s, 1960s, and especially 1970s, purely for reasons relating to nationalist ideology, the government in Manila discouraged use of English as a national language and instead promoted Filipino. This is fact promoted disunity, since Filipino is not in fact the native language of most Filipinos. Even worse, as the rest of Asia leaped into high-gear English instruction and usage, Philippines lagged behind, with negative consequences for the country, its economy, and its people.

Ukrainian-Russian Bilingualism as a Unifying Factor in Ukraine

Russian education and usage can be encouraged even without elevation to a national language. But there is a need for honesty about the political, social, and historical message that is sent by denial of state status to Russian in a country in which, more than in any other obvious example, there really are two truly national languages, which also happen to be closely related to one another. It is a message to Ukraine’s Russian speakers: You, and your language, are second-rate. You need to “get with the program” and start using the one-and-only truly “national” language, not a “minority” language. Such a message may be welcome to some extremists, for whom Russophones are not “real” Ukrainians anyway. But it does nothing for Ukraine as a whole.

In considering the experience of other countries, AIU has noted the example of Finland, where Swedish is an official language, along with Finnish, even though native Swedish speakers account for only about six percent of the population. Still, when Finland became independent it wisely was decided that denying Swedish official status would be message to Swedish-speakers that they were second-class citizens or in some sense aliens, since before Finland was part of the Russian Empire it had been ruled by Sweden.

By contrast, there is the example of Belgium, where unfortunately language on the “parallel monolingual” pattern has become a significant element of state disunity. This is in large part because Dutch-speaking Flemings have honored their obligation to learn French but French-speaking Walloons resist learning Dutch, instead preferring to study English. (There is a direct comparison to young western Ukrainians’ refusal to study Russian, preferring instead English or another foreign tongue – in fact, anything but Russian!) Perhaps the most well-known example is Canada, which has a very complex bilingual establishment, but where only about one-third of French-speakers speak English – lower than in many countries where English is not an official language – and only about 17% of the total national population speak both.

For Ukraine, perhaps the most edifying positive example of language policy might be that of Luxembourg. Though tiny compared to Ukraine, Luxembourg’s linguistic situation is instructive in the sense of a consistent expectation that all citizens speak the national languages. (In Luxembourg, that means not just two but three: the local Franconian language, Lëtzebuergesch (Люксембургский, Люксембурзька), but also French and German.) Most important, there is a national consensus on the teaching and use of each language. This includes school instruction, which starts in Lëtzebuergesch at the elementary level, then switches to German, and then in secondary school to French. The laws are in French as is the monolingual government website. The main newspaper of record, Luxemburger Wort, is mainly in German. It is assumed everyone can read all three languages with equal fluency.

Keeping Mr. Yanukovich’s Promise and Achieving a National Accord

When asked last month about the status of Russian as an official language, President Yanukovich curtly answered:

“Learn Ukrainian, that will be normal. Learn other foreign languages. We live on Ukrainian soil and we should respect and honor it.”

He is of course right – but only half right. All Ukrainians should learn Ukrainian, and foreign languages too. But clearly the most advantageous development in Ukraine – and especially for Ukraine’s national unity – would be for all Russian-speakers to become proficient in Ukrainian, and for all Ukrainian-speakers to be proficient in Russian, and for both languages to be in nationwide use, both officially and unofficially. For that to occur, both Ukrainophones and Russophones need to feel they have a stake in both languages as unifying elements in Ukraine. This would of course mean the end of a nationalist agenda under which the Russian language is viewed with suspicion and as undesirable, even “foreign.” Conversely, a balanced policy should be based on a kind of national accord, whereby Russian is elevated to a second national language and people in all regions of Ukraine honestly undertake acquiring proficiency in the “other” official language – the one they don’t speak, or at least are not comfortable with. Not only would such a policy open the path to greater unity of Ukraine, but would enhance its prospects as a bridge between the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe.

In comparison to a country the size of Luxembourg, working out such an accord in Ukraine would seem a complex matter. On the other hand, it involves only two languages, not three. And Ukrainian and Russian are far more closely related than are French and German. Finally, well over 90% of Ukrainians can speak and read Russian (even if some don’t want to) and a very large majority can speak and read Ukrainian. In short, Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism is already a national fact in Ukraine. What is missing is a formalized consensus on the use and protection of both languages. A national accord could take the form, for example, of specifying that Ukrainian would remain the exclusive language of legislation, comparable to French in Luxembourg. It would also mean an energetic nationwide program to promote use of Ukrainian in Russian-speaking areas and of Russian in Ukrainian-speaking areas. No doubt there would be many details that would have to be negotiated, as well as some costs of duplication (nothing in comparison, though, to what Canada, Belgium, and other officially bi- or multi-lingual countries experience). It would require goodwill on the part of Ukrainians on both sides of the language divide – itself a positive side-benefit of working out a fair and balanced arrangement.

For the Yanukovich administration, a commitment to achieving a national language accord based on Ukrainian-Russian official bilingualism is a matter of democratic accountability as well as good statecraft. In 2010, as in every previous campaign in which he has been a candidate, he has promised that Russian will be made a second official language. When voters ask him about that promise, “learn Ukrainian” is not a sufficient answer. Certainly, the practical hurdles to changing Article 10 are formidable, which is why starting work on a national language accord should not be further delayed.