As the political stability and territorial integrity of Ukraine continue to be an active topic for a third year running, some may be wondering if the differences in language and identity among the population may have sparked the situation in the first place. Language seems to have been on Ukraine’s agenda since the country’s independence in 1991, when Ukrainian replaced Russian as the official language. Since then, there has been a gradual increase in the number of people, including ethnic Russians, who speak Ukrainian, and a rise in governmental policies aiming to broaden its use. However, Russian continues to be widely spoken, especially in the south and east of the country. Based on statistics, ethnic Russians are the largest ethnic minority in Ukraine (17.3%), mostly living in the southern and eastern regions. The protection of the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside Russia has arisen in recent political discourse. For example, on March 1st, 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.
According to the findings of a new report by peace-building organisation International Alert and the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research (UCIPR), which looks at the connotations of Russian language use in Ukraine for ethnic Russians, this segment of the population, as a whole, seems to enjoy the freedom to use their language and identity, refuting claims language-related factors may be fueling the situation in Eastern Ukraine. However, questions on the future of the Russian language and its speakers in Ukraine seem to remain open to political interpretation.
Talking about this matter, Alyona Lukyanchuk, spokesperson for International Alert in Ukraine, stated the following: “Our research shows […] 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 […]. We must address this as part of the reconciliation process in the country.” International Alert’s study reveals most Russian speakers have opportunities to learn, communicate and share information in their native language. When interviewed by the International Alert, a Russian language teacher from Kherson in southern Ukraine, north of Crimea, confirmed she has been enjoying the freedom to speak and teach in Russian for over 35 years of her career. Furthermore, the situation appears to have encouraged people to think more about their identity in connection with their ethnic roots and the country where they live. According to a focus group participant in Lviv, people have started to become more tolerant and accepting of Russian-speaking Ukrainians: “Probably people are starting to understand we are the same – citizens of Ukraine.”
The International Alert’s report concludes by setting out a list of recommendations for softening matters related to language, which include protecting the rights of different language speakers, developing multilingual educational methods and encouraging freedom of speech, irrespective of the language used. In essence, the study identifies language as a vital and distinct ingredient to finding solutions to complex situations, considering perceptions of reality may be shaped by the structure and emotional power of the words people use. The multi-layered reality of Ukrainian society appears to be marked by regional contrasts, including linguistic disparities. In order to offer answers to this distinct situation in the history of Ukraine, it may be worth opening up a discussion on multiculturalism in the country and the place and future of Russian language and culture. Among other elements, language use may represent an important part of a comprehensive resolution process leading to the consolidation of a national identity and, ultimately, peace in the country.
How may addressing multiculturalism in Ukraine help the peace process?