Foreign observers have a hard time understanding how the Ukrainian community managed to transfer power to the man whose presidential ambitions five years ago gave rise to a powerful civic movement. Instead, for many of us, above all those who stood in the Maidan back in 2004, the choice the country has made is not so much stunning as depressing.
The phenomenon of Ukrainian elections forces ones to remember Václav Havel’s well-known dictum: “Democracy has its own drawbacks: it strongly ties the hands of those who respect it, while permitting nearly everything to those who don’t.” Today democracy in Ukraine has been exploited by politicians for whom the sense of this word — ‘people’s rule’ — is an empty sound. They have utilised it cleverly, in the best traditions of the Bolshevik “freedom of speech.”
The worst thing is that Mr Yanukovych & Co. despise the Ukrainian language and culture and the historical memory of Ukrainians. The first and most distinctive expression of this is their disregard for the state language when they speak in the Verkhovna Rada. This means that they ignore the state status of the Ukrainian language, and in this case it loses its state-building, consolidating role.
If implemented, Viktor Yanukovych’s electioneering slogan “Two languages, one country” will lead to chaos, a deeper rift, and bitterer conflict fueled by the issues of language and culture rather than national consolidation. The introduction of a second state language will not only deprive Ukrainian of its state-building function but will also be an act of discrimination regarding the national minorities residing in Ukraine, because they will be put in a less advantageous position than the Russian minority.
Today we are reaping the fruit of the government’s inactivity, in particular that of the orange team, which has continued throughout the 18 years of Ukraine’s independence and has affected language, culture, enforcement of legislation on language use, support for the Ukrainian language and culture, and protection of our informational and cultural space.
Comparative studies of language planning in other countries show that when a state lacks a targeted language policy, which is the case in Ukraine, it essentially supports the language that has a stronger position, which in our case is Russian. Even though Ukrainian has achieved the status of the state language, no concentrated effort has been made to establish itself as such, even though this is crucial for uniting the country. In the Donbass and the Crimea, where Soviet Russification attained great success, especially in the 1970s, and Russian became strongly established, the years of independence failed to stop the ongoing assimilation and even aggravated the situation. It is in these regions, unlike others, that the number of Ukrainians who rejected Ukrainian as their mother tongue has increased in the past several years. This is, no doubt, a result of the nearly total Russian dominance in the informational and cultural space in eastern and southern Ukraine.
That the Party of Regions plans to spread its practice of ridding a territory of the Ukrainian language and culture to cover the entire country (we have already heard some Regionals declare their intention to make relevant intrusions into the system of education) is a real threat to the sovereignty of our country. The reason is that when people reject the language of their community and switch to a different one, which they perceive as being stronger and more prestigious, it causes a psychological phenomenon known in the West as self-hatred, i.e., contempt of and scorn for one’s native language. The government’s inactivity in the sphere of language and culture, which is crucial for strengthening the state, has permitted people who have lost their national identity, and hence are cynical and immoral, to infiltrate government bodies en masse.
The rulers seated in Kyiv silently “swallowed” the Ukrainophobic statements, such as the one made by the secretary of the Donetsk City Council Mykola Levchenko, who said that Ukrainian is the language of folklore, while Russian is the language of science and civilisation, which is why Russian has to be the only state language, while Ukrainian should quietly die.
I should also mention here the odious address of this same city council to President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and the Lviv and Ternopil city councils on 21 February 2007 (on International Mother Tongue Day!). The members of the Donetsk City Council did not only use false statistical data when they claimed that Russian is the native language for the “overwhelming majority” of Ukraine’s population, but also resorted to historically dubious claims regarding Ukraine’s “age-long friendship” with the “powerful, consanguineous (!) neighbour” — the Russian Federation.
In view of the new government’s intentions to spread the Russification of education to other oblasts, their policy will be geared towards raising as many people without nationality as possible among young Ukrainians. One wonders: Precisely what people did Mr Yanukovych mean when he campaigned under the slogan “Ukraine for People”? Are Ukrainians part of these mythical people, or will the new president build Ukraine for the benefit of the “powerful consanguineous neighbour,” thus planning to complete the Soviet project of obtaining Ukraine without Ukrainians?
Larysa Masenko is Director of the Ukrainian Language Department of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.This article first appeared in The Ukrainian Week.