Ruling on pre-eminence of Ukrainian language stirs controversy
by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau
KYIV - A Ukrainian Constitutional Court ruling that asserts the pre-eminence of the Ukrainian language in the country has brought a series of denunciations from Moscow accusing Ukraine of disregarding minority rights. The Moscow attack comes as Kyiv prepares its first serious effort to promote the state language in its government institutions and schools.
On February 9 Russian's Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement in which it expressed concern that "certain forces in Ukraine seem determined to create a phenomenon previously unseen in Europe - to make the native language of the overwhelming majority of the population unacceptable, reduce its status to marginal, and, possibly, even squeeze it out."
The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said it could only welcome "Ukraine's effort to develop and support the Ukrainian language if it doesn't restrict human rights or is not done through an administrative deformation of the distinctive cultural and language environment."
The Russian commissioner on human rights, Oleh Mironov, said the same day that he agreed that Ukraine's Constitutional Court had reduced the legal parameters in which the Russian language can function in Ukraine, which he called "a gross and obvious violation of civilized relations between nations, the limitation of essential rights and freedoms of citizens."
The outcry from Moscow was in reaction to a December 14, 1999, ruling of Ukraine's Constitutional Court issued in response to a petition by 51 national deputies, which requested a clarification of Statute 10 of Ukraine's basic law on the use of the state language in central and local government bodies, as well as the language of instruction in public schools.
In its rendering the high court supported the view presented by the national deputies that within government institutions and in public schools the Ukrainian language is "disregarded" and "deliberately ignored."
The decision states that the Ukrainian language is "the mandatory means of communication for state bodies and local administrations, as well as in the spheres of public life on the territory of Ukraine."
The court ruled that the Ukrainian language is mandatory for government officials while carrying out the duties associated with their official positions and that, beginning with elementary schools up through the university level, Ukrainian must be utilized as the language of the teaching process.
The Constitutional Court also clearly stated that minority languages can be utilized in public schools where it is allowed by law and in the Constitution.
Kyiv responds to attacks
The Russian criticism has brought a full battery of responses from Ukrainian officials in various branches of government.
Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Ministry replied to the Russian complaint - the second one issued from Moscow since the December ruling - by rejecting Russian assertions of discrimination against the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine and attacking Moscow for its widespread disregard of the language rights of Ukrainians living in the Russian Federation.
The Ukrainian ministry stated that in their fury the organizers of the attack on the Ukrainian Constitutional Court's decision have ignored the fact that the need to strengthen the Ukrainian language is a direct result of decades of forced Russification, which artificially relegated Ukrainian to secondary status. The retort pointed out that, while Ukraine has many Russian-language schools, theaters, books and newspapers, and that minority language rights are enshrined in the Constitution and in normative law, Russia continues to ignore the needs of its large Ukrainian minority.
"In the Russian Federation to this day there is not a single state-supported newspaper, magazine, library or professional theater in Ukrainian, and there are only a handful of schools where the Ukrainian language is taught," reads the statement.
Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Ministry also summoned the temporary Russian chargé d'affaires, Vsevolod Loskutov, on February 14 to discuss the Russian assertions, which it called "groundless accusations by the Russian party with regard to Ukraine on the infringement of language rights of the Russian ethnic minority," according to Interfax-Ukraine.
Ukraine's parliamentary ombudsman, Nina Karpachova went even further and suggested that Russian officials "have stepped outside the limits of their competence and interfered in Ukraine's internal domestic affairs."
In particular she criticized the remarks on human rights violations by Mr. Mironov. Ms. Karpachova explained that a bilateral agreement has been in effect for more than a year, which foresees regular consultations between both countries' ombudsmen on alleged human rights violations. She said that in that time her office has not received a single complaint on human rights abuses due to language discrimination.
A political move?
The latest confrontation between Russia and Ukraine over minority language rights may have more to do with the upcoming Russian presidential elections than a court ruling. Acting President Vladimir Putin's success in stifling the Chechen opposition and his shrewd manipulation of the media has left his opponents grasping for issues to bring attention to themselves. The minority rights of Russians living in the near abroad is just such a subject.
Yurii Bohutskyi, President Leonid Kuchma's aide on cultural affairs, said only one problem exists on the issue of Russian language rights in Ukraine. "There is a problem with unscrupulous politicians trying to use language issues so as to meet their own ambitions," he said.
Although Mr. Bohutskyi did not name individuals, political experts in Ukraine have suggested presidential candidates Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party and Grigorii Yavlinsky of the Yabloko Party, as two who may have put pressure on Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry to reply to the Ukrainian Constitutional Court decision in order to create a political stir in Russia that would enable them to present themselves as defenders of the Russian culture.
Statistics tell the story
Try as one might, it is difficult to make a case for Russian-language discrimination in contemporary Ukraine. Statistics presented by Ms. Karpachova show that currently more than 3,000 preschools and 5,000 elementary schools in Ukraine teach in Russian and more than half a million students are taught in the Russian language.
Some 90 percent of all books sold in Ukraine are in the Russian language, while 62 percent of the literature found in state-supported libraries is in Russian. Fourteen theaters in Ukraine are Russian-language, while a majority of Ukrainian television programming is also in Russian. Additionally, most newspapers and magazines are printed either exclusively in Russian or in two languages, Russian and Ukrainian.
Ukraine recently has begun to review its language policy and has taken several preliminary steps to assert the dominance of the Ukrainian language, which was given official status as the state language in the Constitution of Ukraine adopted in 1996.
As a result of the Constitutional Court decision, the Cabinet of Ministers under recently appointed Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko has developed a resolution on additional measures to expand and enforce the use of the state language in public institutions. The resolution, which has yet to be signed by Mr. Yuschenko, is a wide-ranging plan for the reinvigoration of the Ukrainian language for the period through 2005.
The document was developed by the Council on Language Policy, which was appointed by President Kuchma and is chaired by First Vice Prime Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Mykola Zhulynskyi.
A comprehensive language policy
On January 27, when the finished document was presented to the government for review, Dr. Zhulynskyi explained that Ukraine needs a comprehensive language policy as a uniting influence within society.
"In Ukraine we must create a normal climate for the acceptance of the Ukrainian language, to raise its prestige and to utilize a series of needed measures so that the language gathers new impulses for further development to become a consolidating factor within our society," said Dr. Zhulynskyi.
Some of the 26 measures proposed by the resolution include:
Ukrainian must be predominate
Oleksander Trybushnyi, deputy director of the Department of Language Policy Implementation, said it is time that the state language assume predominance in Ukraine. "We are not ousting the Russian language from its position in today's society. We are saying that the Ukrainian language needs to be supported," explained Mr. Trybushnyi, who is also the secretary of the Council on Language Policy.
At the same time, Mr. Trybushnyi could not adequately explain why the completed Cabinet of Minister's resolution has not yet been signed by the prime minister. He speculated that the normal procedure for review was not yet completed, but also admitted that the outcry from Russia may have stalled the process.
The presidential administration is preparing a parallel decree to be issued by President Kuchma, according to Mr. Trybushnyi. That, too, is stalled in the approval process. Mr. Trybushnyi would only say that it has reached the "upper administrative levels." He cautioned that neither administrative order may be signed before Russia's presidential elections because of the additional discord it may cause between Moscow and Kyiv.
Mr. Trybushnyi also cautioned that miracles should not be expected once the implementation process begins. Although he said he sees a clear willingness on the part of Mr. Kuchma to finally assure a proper place for the Ukrainian language, the council's lack of a vertical organization to the grassroots level will make implementation difficult.
"This will not be a blitz-parade, of course," explained Mr. Trybushnyi. "It will be difficult work. It will depend on the political will of the Cabinet of Ministers and the president."
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, February 27, 2000, No. 9, Vol. LXVIII
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