Beyond Words - Language Blog

How the Battle over Language is Shaping Russo-Ukrainian Relations

Although northern Ukraine is considered by many linguists to be the point of origin of the Slavic people, the country itself has, for centuries, been politically overshadowed by its behemoth neighbor to the east. From Tsarist times – which saw the Ukrainian language lose clout as monarch after monarch limited its use in the public arena – to the Soviet era of rampant Russification, to a modern Russia that attempts to leverage political power and natural resources to tempt the Ukrainian government to expand trade relations, the people have attempted to hold fast to their roots.

This conflict has become more politicized than ever before as last week marked a hotly antagonistic struggle between opposing factions, with the issue of language taking center stage. On Tuesday, July 3, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law to raise the status of Russian to that of official “regional language.” While Ukrainian will remain the sole official federal language, Russian will be approved for use in courts, schools, and numerous government institutions in the Russian-speaking regions of the country. For many Ukrainians – especially those in the western part of the country – such a step is simply unacceptable. Buses of protesters arrived in Kiev to speak out against the law while brawls broke out in parliament. The president’s administration ordered a ban on all forms of protest for the week of July 3-9, but policed have not been entirely successful in clearing Kiev’s European Square of its numerous demonstrators.

In Ukraine, language represents a symbol and political litmus test for where elected officials stand on Russo-Ukrainian relations, among other things. While the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko took the nationalist route – even hiring a Russian-Ukrainian interpreter for conferences while being fluent in Russian – the current president, Viktor Yanukovich, has the pro-Ukrainian members of the parliament concerned. His close ties with the Russian Duma, as well as his frequent addresses in Russian, seem to indicate a reversal of Orange Revolution policies. In the months to come, the issue of language will play a pivotal role in how the Ukrainian drama unfolds.