Language War Rocks Rada
Ukranian Parliament Fisticuffs Highlight Linguistic Divide

The bill making Ukrainian an official language in the Ukraine treads on painful cleavage.

Amiel Ungar,

It shall not pass
It shall not pass

The fist fight that broke out last week in the Ukrainian Rada was far from edifying, but it did demonstrate how strong the linguistic issue is in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

In Soviet times, Russia was an official language after the national language, but it was used as an assimilatory device in an attempt to Russify the other nationalities.

As Russian was the common language in the Army, the Communist Party and, most importantly, in higher education, those looking for an upward career path and entry into prestigious institutes were tempted to register their children in schools where the curriculum was taught in Russian.

Ethnic Russians who had settled in Soviet republics outside the Russian republic could, for all practical purposes, avoid speaking and learning the local language and get by entirely in Russian.

When Ukraine became independent - and particularly during the period of the Orange Revolution - an attempt was made to strengthen the dominance of Ukrainian.

The Party of Regions, currently in power, has its base of support in regions populated by Russian speakers.  It therefore has an interest in gratifying its political base and passing a law under which, in regions where 10% of the population or more are Russian speakers, Russian will be an official language.  This means they can dispense with Ukranian and still make it.

The party of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko claims that the bill would again relegate Ukrainian to second-class status and could even result in dividing the country into two.

Ukraine has watched breakaway regions in Georgia receiving Russian recognition and military protection. As some of the affected areas physically border on Russia, there are grounds for similar fears. Tymoshenko, in a statement Friday, described the bill as "a crime against Ukraine, the nation, its history and the people."

President Viktor Yanukovych, whose mother tongue is Russian, promised to make Russian official as part of his presidential campaign in 2009.

He delayed passage of the bill and thus incurred criticism from Moscow that has emphasized, as part of its policy in the"near abroad" (the label given to countries bordering Russia and that were part of the Soviet Union), to protect the rights of the ethnic Russians and particularly their linguistic rights.

Yanukovych has attempted to steer a middle course between Russia and the European Union, but would it would appear that with the passage of the bill, he has decided to throw Ukraine's lot in with Russia.