Originally posted on the Chair of Ukrainian Studies Blog, on 23 June 2010

If there is one thing that I have learned growing up in Quebec, it is that language politics never goes away. Forty-one years after language riots in the Montreal suburb of St-Leonard (over whether children of immigrants should be allowed to study in English) and thirty-three years after the adoption of the Language Law (Bill 101, preventing children of immigrants from enrolling in English schools and making French the sole official language of Quebec), language politics is still making headlines here, this time over whether high school graduates should be free to study in college (an intermediate level, before university) in English (they have been free thus far, per Bill 101). (This latest brouhaha is empirically groundless, if you ask me, but this is for another day).

And so it is in the admittedly different setting of Ukraine. Since independence, the language question has periodically reared its head. In the wake of the Black Sea Fleet Accords, the Holodomor turnaround, and renewed pressure on the media, the government of President Viktor Yanukovych apparently intends to change the language law and grant Russian the status of “minority language” all over Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education seems to have lifted the requirement of Ukrainian-language entrance examination (UKL445, item 9) in higher educational institutions and subsidies to the Ukrainian-language publishing industry are in jeopardy. If these changes come to pass, this would suggest that Yanukovych and his acolytes have failed to grasp, in all these years, the sensitivity of language in national politics.

Language politics is about incentives. Wherever political claims collide over the use of a language against another in public institutions, one language is always more socially attractive than the other. In the language of youth, one language is more “cool” – give greater chance of life mobility – than the other. Language politics consists in giving incentives to speakers of the socially dominant (“cool”) language to learn and use the other language, which, more often than not, happens to be the language of the demographic majority. In proclaiming French as the official language of Quebec in 1977, the idea was to make English-speakers, mostly unilingual back then, learn French. Not that my separatist (we say “souverainistes” here) friends would ever notice, but the policy was a great success. The vast majority of English-speakers beyond 50 are now bilingual (far more than French-speakers) and half of the parents whose children are eligible to study in English schools prefer to send them to French schools, and there would be no other reason for them to do so unless they believe that French has become essential to make it in Quebec society. This is what the Soviet Union called “perspektivnyi”. French has become a perspektivnyi yazyk, a language that opens up possibilities, even though English obviously remains the language of mobility in Canada and the United States, and the “cool” language globally.

The formula is simple, yet endlessly controversial politically. If someone knows that he will always get by speaking his preferred language, then he won’t learn the other one. This is why bilingualism does not work in terms of having two languages granted equal official status on a given territory. If Russian and Ukrainian were to be proclaimed state languages in Ukraine (“state language” and “official language” mean the same thing), then Russian-speakers would feel that they don’t have to bother with Ukrainian any more and would be perfectly at ease answering in Russian to a query in Ukrainian. The social dominance of Russian would remain unaffected, preventing Ukrainian from becoming perspektivynyi. (Yes, the social value of languages is as constructed as identities are constructed.) Obviously, when the Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnyk lifts the entrance  exam requirement in Ukrainian, he sends a message — still a little confusing, according to Oxana Shevel (UKL445, item 9) — that Ukrainian is not that needed to get a diploma in Ukraine, and therefore not perspektivnyi.

In terms of the official status of languages, the strategy of President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has evolved over the years, from demanding that Russian be made a second state language to calling for Russian to be a “minority language” in Ukraine. This is line with the requirements of the European Charter for Minority Languages, which has been ratified by Ukraine in September 2005. Of course, in a liberal democracy, the protection of the official language must go hand in hand with the protection of minority languages. The problem in Ukraine is that it is not clear who the minority is. Borys Kolesnikov, a Party of Region MP in charge of drafting a new language law, thinks that it applies to “those who speak (volodiiut) Russian.”

Yet there is no country in the world that defines its minorities in terms of what they can speak (in Ukraine, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens can speak Russian). The criteria used is generally akin to mother tongue and it happens to be the sole category used in the Ukrainian census (ridna mova, although a better translation is native language). Crucially, the Charter does not specify how minorities are to be counted, i.e., the statistical threshold that establishes when a “minority” is recognized on a given territory. For Kolesnikov, you only need 10%, while the Yushchenko government, in ratifying the Charter, said 50%. (The tradition in the first country to abide by language thresholds, Austria-Hungary, was 20%). The application of any of these criteria – from 10 to 50%, from “native language” to the ability to speak a second language — would bring hugely different results.

Don’t hold your breath, however, for a substantive discussion about all this. Lest anyone needs a reminder, Ukraine is a state based on the unrule-of-law. How else could it be described when the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, contradicts its own previous ruling in allowing deputies to defect from electoral factions and form a parliamentary majority (UKL443, 17 May 2010, item 14)? Or when Yanukovych declares to the world that the Holodomor was not a genocide before changing the law that says the opposite? The use of language in public domains is not about to be legally codified in Ukraine. The battle is over the principle of making Ukrainian a language that counts in Ukraine. Leonid Kuchma understood the electoral imperative of identifying the state with Ukrainian within months of winning the presidency in 1994 (and after having campaigned on making Russian a second state language). It is puzzling that Yanukovych does not seem share this basic electoral truth.

Dominique Arel is Associate Professor of Political Science and titular of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa.