Ukraine: Language issues politically generated, not source of tension among citizens – report

Conflict in Ukraine is not driven by differences in language, despite media claims.

These are the findings of a new report by peacebuilding organisation International Alert and the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research (UCIPR), produced with funding from the EU.

The report, titled Russophone identity in Ukraine, found that Russian-language speakers or Russians in Ukraine do not, on the whole, face problems with their language or identity and that neither of these are key drivers of the conflict.

The question of the future of the Russian language however, and its speakers in Ukraine remains extremely sensitive, open to political manipulation and potential future tension, the report adds.

It found that Russian-language speakers or Russians in Ukraine do not, on the whole, face problems with their language or identity and that neither of these are key drivers of the conflict.

The question of the future of the Russian language however, and its speakers in Ukraine remains extremely sensitive, open to political manipulation and potential future tension, the report adds.

Alyona Lukyanchuk, spokesperson for International Alert in Ukraine, says:

“The conflict in Ukraine has now entered its third year. Too often, people claim that a clash of linguistic and ethnic identities sparked the conflict. Our research shows the opposite, that on the whole Russian and Ukrainian speakers have been living and continue to live peacefully side by side.

“However, the language issue has been highly politicised and sadly, we are seeing incidents of it being used to stir up tensions. We must address this as part of the reconciliation process in the country.”  

Language has been on Ukraine’s agenda since independence in 1991, when Ukrainian replaced Russian as the official language. There has since been a gradual increase in the number of people, including ethnic Russians, who speak Ukrainian, and several government policies aiming to broaden its use.

Russian nevertheless continues to be widely spoken, especially in the south and east.

The study found that most Russian speakers in Ukraine do not face discrimination and have opportunities to learn, communicate and share information in their native language. As a teacher from Kherson in southern Ukraine, just north of Crimea said:

“I teach Russian language and literature…and I teach in Russian. In 35 years of my work, I have never been discriminated against on the grounds of language.”

A Russian-speaking respondent from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine said:

“The Russian language is not discriminated against and does not need to be protected.”

By contrast, respondents noted there was still a shortage in Ukrainian-language cultural materials in parts of Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv - a legacy of the language policy of the Soviet Union, which prioritised Russian.

The report also examines different attitudes to the conflict among Russian-speaking Ukrainians, including those who disassociate themselves from the policies of the Russian government. A Russian speaker from Odessa, southern Ukraine, pointed out there are many such attitudes within the Russian-speaking population:

“Russian speakers are different. There are pro-Ukrainian Russian speakers, Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalists, Russian-speaking Ukraine-phobes and fervent Russian-speaking separatists.”

The report sets out a list of recommendations for reducing potential tensions relating to language, which include protecting the rights of both Ukrainian and Russian speakers, developing multilingual educational methods and combatting hate speech, irrespective of the language used.

ENDS

Notes to editors

About the report

The report was commissioned by International Alert and conducted by the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Research, with funding from the EU.

Download the report

Background

  • Ethnic Russians are the largest ethnic minority in Ukraine (17.3%), mostly living in the southern and eastern regions (Ukrainian national census, 2001).
  • 50% of Ukrainians consider Ukrainian to be their native language, 29% consider it to be Russian and an additional 20% considered themselves bilingual. 1% are native speakers of Romanian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish and other languages (RATING, 2012).
  • Before the rise in tensions in late 2013, and the outbreak of the violent conflict in February 2014, there was little mention of violations of the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine in sociological polls and official data.
  • In 2014, the Ukrainian parliament repealed a controversial law passed in 2012 that allowed the use of ‘regional languages’ – including Russian - in courts and certain government functions.
  • Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov has since vetoed that repeal, but the episode has alarmed many of Ukraine’s Russian speakers and others. 
  • On 1 March 2014, the political leadership of Russia used the protection of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians in Ukraine as one of the official reasons for the annexation of Crimea.
  • In April 2014, a poll from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed that 71.5% of respondents across southern and eastern Ukraine did not agree that Russian language rights were infringed upon.
  • At present, a new draft law is under consideration in the Ukrainian parliament aims to reaffirm Ukrainian as the official language of the country. It does not prohibit Russian or any other language.
  • Since its start in February 2014, the conflict in Ukraine has resulted in almost 10,000 people killed (OHCHR) and just over 1.7 million people internally displaced (Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy). A further estimated 777,000 Ukrainians have fled to areas outside Ukraine.
  • Although fighting has decreased in the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine since a ceasefire agreement in 2015, it still occurs regularly. Military and civilian casualties occur each week. More than 30 people are believed to have died in the latest surge of violence between 21 January and 3 February 2017.

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