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Language Intolerance in Ukraine

The Ukrainian language is back in the news. The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, recently ruled on the Regionnaire-proposed draft law, On Principles of the State Language Policy of Ukraine: “the question remains whether … there are sufficient guarantees … for the consolidation of the Ukrainian language as the sole State language, and of the role it has to play in the Ukrainian multilinguistic society” (article 66).

The commission’s language is squishy, but diplo-babble always is. In reality, the above remarks represent a severe criticism of the draft law. And rightly so. The Regionnaires have done everything possible to roll back Ukrainian in the last two years. Naturally, they insist they’re being evenhanded, even liberal. Indeed, they claim that they’re the true Europeans. They say they want linguistic freedom; they say they stand for equality of languages. It’s them other guys—the supporters of Ukrainian language and culture—who are imposing their preferences on a reluctant population. Them other guys, meanwhile, insist that all they want is equal time for a language that’s been discriminated against for hundreds of years.

Now, the Regionnaire monoglots do have a point: language use should be guided by liberal values. We may doubt their sincerity—after all, these guys wouldn’t know a contemporary European value (as opposed to those practiced by European colonialists, racists, and anti-Semites) if it snapped at their jowls—but it is true that imposing languages or denying people the right to speak the language of their choice contravenes liberalism and tolerance. Defenders of Ukrainian also have a point. Ukrainian language and culture have been subjected to sustained persecution by the czars and the Soviets and surely deserve to have a significant presence in a country that calls itself Ukraine. 

So how do we reconcile both claims?

Consider what the ideal language situation in a liberal and tolerant Ukraine would be like.

Imagine a country in which two languages are spoken by the vast majority of the population. What linguistic skills and values should citizens have if they want the society to be based on contemporary European values and be liberal, tolerant, and functional? That is, if they want all citizens to enjoy freedom of linguistic choice and still be able to communicate?

First, everybody should be proficient in both languages. Proficiency translates into the ability to comprehend and speak both languages.

Second, everybody should feel free to use whichever language they want whenever and wherever they want to. The freedom to use whichever language one wants is tantamount to liberalism.

And third, everybody should accept others’ use of whichever language they want whenever and wherever they want to. The acceptance of whichever language others use is tantamount to tolerance.

Now imagine two languages—U and R. In ideal circumstances, speakers of U would be proficient in and tolerant of R, while speakers of R would be proficient in and tolerant of U. If a speaker of U and a speaker of R met, they could and would happily speak their own preferred languages, either only U, only R, or each other’s languages. The conditions of liberalism, tolerance, and functionality would be maintained.

So how do these reflections apply to Ukraine, where the two key languages are Ukrainian and Russian?

In ideal circumstances, speakers of Ukrainian would be proficient in and tolerant of Russian, while speakers of Russian would be proficient in and tolerant of Ukrainian. If a speaker of Ukrainian and a speaker of Russian met, they could and would speak their own preferred languages, only Ukrainian, only Russian, or each other’s languages. The conditions of liberalism, tolerance, and functionality would be maintained.

How does the actual linguistic condition in Ukraine measure up against the ideal?

Not as bad as you might think. The vast majority of Ukrainian speakers are proficient in and tolerant of Russian; if and when speakers of Ukrainian encounter speakers of Russian, most are more than happy to hear Russian and even speak it. That is as true of Lviv as it is true of Kyiv and Donetsk.

In contrast, the vast majority of Russian speakers do not meet these conditions. Many are not proficient in Ukrainian; some are intolerant of Ukrainian (and consider it the language of animals); and, if and when speakers of Russian encounter speakers of Ukrainian, few are more than happy to hear Ukrainian and speak it. That is as true of Kyiv and Donetsk as it is true of Lviv.

Ukraine’s language condition is thus only half ideal. For the society to be truly European and thus liberal, tolerant, and functional, that part of the population which lacks proficiency in Ukrainian should acquire proficiency in Ukrainian; that part which is intolerant of Ukrainian should become tolerant of Ukrainian; and that part which is unwilling to hear or speak Ukrainian with Ukrainian speakers should acquire the willingness to hear or speak Ukrainian with Ukrainian speakers.

Each of Ukraine’s presidents—Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yushchenko, and even Viktor Yanukovych—has in point of fact behaved according to European principles. Whatever their personal private linguistic or cultural preferences, they have all made a public effort to be liberal and tolerant in just the way described above. The vast majority of Ukraine’s national democrats also adopt the above posture. The only political forces that are, in both principle and practice, linguistically illiberal and intolerant are the anti-Russian Svoboda party, the anti-Ukrainian Communists, and the anti-Ukrainian Regionnaires—as well as most of their respective constituents. Illiberal and intolerant Ukrainian speakers probably comprise no more than 5 percent of the total population, while illiberal and intolerant Russian speakers probably comprise about 40 percent. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the latter are concentrated in the Regionnaire stronghold in the south and east of the country. 

Ukraine, then, still has a long way to go before it’ll embody European values and be linguistically liberal, tolerant, and functional. But the only way it’ll ever get there is if the Regionnaires abandon their bigoted attitudes and start being liberal toward and tolerant of Ukrainian.

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