Double-Talk

Why Ukrainians Fight Over Language

(The Ukrainian Alphabet)

Since the collapse of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime last month, the question of minority rights within the country has become a matter of international concern. Russia based its military intervention in Crimea (and its threatened intervention in eastern Ukraine) on a supposed need to protect Russians and Russian speakers. In turn, the European Union has called for the “full protection of persons belonging to national minorities.” Both sides have conflated language and ethnicity. In Ukraine, however, the two are separate. Rather than Ukrainian against Russian, battles over language and representation there pit Ukrainian against Ukrainian. Kiev’s new government -- and the West -- must recognize that truth if they are to begin rebuilding the country.

In the 2001 census, the last conducted in Ukraine, 17 percent of the population declared itself to be ethnic Russian (or Russian by “nationality,” in the eastern European phrasing). Of the Russian population, 83 percent is concentrated in Ukraine’s nine eastern and southern provinces. With the exception of Crimea, however, none of these provinces has an ethnic Russian majority -- not even close. Taken together, Russians constitute only 30 percent of the population in southeastern Ukraine (and only 38 percent in the Yanukovych stronghold of Donetsk), whereas ethnic Ukrainians make up 63 percent.

The language picture, however, is strikingly different. Censuses generally ask respondents for their ridna mova (rodnoi yazyk in Russian). That phrase is usually translated as “mother tongue,” but a closer rendering is “language of origin.” An overwhelming majority of western Ukrainians name Ukrainian. But a majority of residents of southeastern Ukraine, 51 percent, claim Russian. In other words, nearly a third of self-declared ethnic Ukrainians give Russian as their language of origin. According to sociological surveys conducted over the last 20 years, moreover, an even greater proportion of residents of southeastern Ukraine prefer to use Russian when given the choice. In one poll run by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in 2004, 81 percent of respondents in southeastern Ukraine noted a preference for Russian.

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