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.

As a whole, Ukraine is a bilingual state. But on the ground in southeastern Ukraine, it verges on unilingual. Anyone who has spent time in cities there can attest to the fact that Ukrainian is rarely heard in public and that Ukrainian speakers who wish to converse with civil servants in Ukrainian will hardly ever succeed. (The reverse is true in western Ukraine.) That stark divide is why the language question has been so central to Ukrainian politics since the country’s independence in 1991.

In Ukraine, language politics is first about symbols. Russian was the language of state administration in the Soviet Union. The 1989 Ukrainian language law, passed by the Soviet Ukrainian parliament as a reaction to similar laws passed in the Baltics and Moldova, declared Ukrainian to be the sole state language. The move was partly symbolic, since it was vague on how the law might be implemented and failed to require civil servants to use Ukrainian. But it did lead to a rise in the number of Ukrainian schools. Whereas Ukrainian was the primary language of instruction for around half of all pupils in the late 1980s, the proportion grew to 82 percent by 2011.

When the law was first passed, it raised hackles in southeastern Ukraine, where, over the next 20 years, parties and candidates demanded that Russian be given an official status as well. The 2012 language law, passed by the Yanukovych government, was the first to do so. It made Russian a regional language, alongside Ukrainian as state language. Meanwhile, Dymtryo Tabachnyk, Yanukovych’s minister of education, began to dismantle the system that had given Ukrainian preference in school, for instance by no longer requiring that high school graduates take their university entrance examinations in Ukrainian. (That requirement had been seen by Ukrainian speakers as an essential way of making Ukrainian a language of mobility.)

Yanukovych and Tabachnyk’s moves, like the Soviet efforts before, reinforced rather than changed facts on the ground: they meant that Russian speakers would never have to use Ukrainian, but they had never done so in their own region anyway. And yet they also signaled a cap on the gradual progress that Ukrainian had made toward becoming a national language -- something a citizen of Ukraine would need to know to make a career in the center. And that was unacceptable to western Ukrainians.

In Ukraine, language is also an emotional topic. On the one hand, Ukrainian speakers tend to present the predominance of Russian in the southeast as artificial, the result of Russification imposed by Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Those governments had prevented the use of Ukrainian in cities. In fact, Ukrainian was banned under the tsars, and Ukrainian schools disappeared from cities of southeastern Ukraine in the 1950s. But Russian speakers, who are mostly ethnic Ukrainian, resent that assertion. No one wants to be told that the language one uses at home -- with one’s children and spouse -- is illegitimate. No matter how they came to speak Russian, many eastern Ukrainians believe, they have a right to continue using it.

On the other hand, Russian-speakers fail to understand that the official bilingualism that they demand means that they have to be willing to speak two languages, not Russian exclusively. They have to be willing to acknowledge that, for a majority of Ukrainians, the Ukrainian language is more natural and is an expression of national identity.

Given the symbolic and emotional weight of language in Ukraine, the rushed cancellation of the 2012 language law a mere 24 hours after the collapse of the Yanukovych regime (a decision since vetoed by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov) was unwise. It was interpreted in the southeast, both among Ukrainians and Russians, as an attack -- an attempt to ban Russian in public life. Actually banning Russian, of course, would have required capacity that the national and regional governments do not have, since the vast majority of urban residents, and thus state officials, in the southeast are more comfortable using Russian. In fact, the slogans of radical groups aside, the national government was never intending to outlaw Russia. Rather, as often happens in language politics, lawmakers were unconcerned with the symbolism of repealing a law without discussion.

In the weeks that followed their decision, which saw Crimea formally annexed by Russia, language policy has become a matter of national security. Russian intervention in other southeastern provinces remains a distinct possibility. And, perhaps as a prelude, the Kremlin has demanded that Russian should become a second state language in Ukraine. That should be a non-starter. The experience of Belarus amply demonstrates what two state languages actually mean in practice in the post-Soviet world -- only Russian will be used. In the escalating crisis, it would be easy for each side to double down on symbolically provocative stances (two state languages, no status at all for Russian, de-Russification), but doing so would only aggravate the real danger of state fragmentation.

Instead, Ukraine should step back from the brink. Politicians must recognize that language rights start with individuals, not those in positions of authority: all people need to have the choice of speaking Russian or Ukrainian when dealing with the state. This means that state officials across the whole country must be conversant in both. To achieve that, graduation in school must be contingent on active knowledge of Ukrainian. These changes would not alter the reality that most people in the southeast would continue to speak only Russian, but it would create a platform for the development of Ukrainian as a public language. Since symbols matter, Russian should be given a status akin to a regional language, but only on the condition that incentives are in place to use Ukrainian for at least some functions. To be sure, with Russia busy labeling Ukrainian-speaking Maidan activists as “fascists,” and with emboldened Ukrainian far-right groups in the western part of the country disinclined to compromise on cultural matters, striking the right balance on language policies will be even more difficult than it has been in the past.

And that speaks to a broader challenge: for decades, Ukraine has been unable to build a culture of regional inclusion, and politics there have remained remarkably regionally polarized. In the 2010 presidential election, Yanukovych obtained 77 percent of the vote in southeastern Ukraine, but only 18 percent in the center and west, where 53 percent of the electorate resides. In the 2004 election, Viktor Yushchenko, the winning candidate, obtained 84 percent of the vote in the west, but less than 20 percent in the east. In both cases, the result was a government that largely excluded half of Ukraine.

One way to address this problem would be to build a party with cross-regional appeal. But efforts to do so in the past two decades have repeatedly failed, and the five parties in the current parliament are heavily regionalized: the Party of Regions (Yanukovych) and Communists in the southeast, Fatherland (headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the interim prime minister), Udar (Vitali Klitschko), and Svoboda (Oleh Tyahnybok) in the West. Instead, Ukraine could promote inclusion by diminishing the powers of the president and transforming Ukraine’s political system into a parliamentary democracy.

A second step would be to make government more representative of regional interests. Any project for the “federalization” of Ukraine, now demanded by Russia, is stillborn, since the term is inexorably linked in the popular imagination to separatism and the collapse of the Yugoslav, Czechoslovak, and even Soviet federations. But Ukraine could increase regional representation by making regional governors elected, rather than appointed. It could also tweak its electoral system so that the system favored the creation of coalition governments built on the principle of regional representation. Thus, instead of a single proportional representation list for the entire country, there would be several for a number of large regional entities. Such a system would help promote competition within regions. 

A balanced language law and regional inclusivity would not have anything to do with protecting ethnic Russians. That is just not how politics in Ukraine are organized: ethnic Russians in Ukraine do not come together as one bloc (even in Crimea, the Russian nationalist party, which was installed in power by the Russian military, obtained only four percent of the vote in the last provincial election). The fact that Yanukovych’s party called itself the Party “of Regions” and appealed to Russian speakers, but never to ethnic Russians, is revealing enough. In day-to-day life, the identity boundaries between Russians and Ukrainians in southeastern Ukraine are weak to nonexistent. A sense of regional belonging unites them. A surefire way of avoiding a growing sense of estrangement from Kiev is to include their elites in national decision-making. Some say that Russia’s meddling in Ukraine may spur what Ukraine has failed to create in 20 years: national unity. Yet national unity can only be achieved if Ukrainian politicians devise rules of governance that make it possible.

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