Ukraine crisis is not just about language

March 5, 2014

A good bit of the bloodshed this world experienced over the past 50 years is rooted in religion: the Mideast wars between Israel and its neighbors, the disintegration of what once was Yugoslavia, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the slaughter in Nigeria and Sudan, the Sunni-Shiite struggles in Lebanon, Iraq and other nations. But religion is seldom the only incentive for fighting, and sometimes not even the main issue. Culture, history and language often have much to do with it. Those who share them will fight for the power to protect them.

The crisis in Ukraine is not a conflict of religion, nor is it about language. But the dispute over which language should be official in the country is certainly aggravating the situation and could push the country toward civil war, divide it or invite a full-scale Russian invasion and takeover.

About 65 percent of Ukraine’s population consider Ukrainian their native language; 33 percent said Russian is their native tongue. The Research and Branding Group, a Ukrainian nongovernment marketing and research company, polled Ukrainians four years ago and found that only 17 percent believed that language was a serious national problem. The poll also found that 76 percent of the population have a working knowledge of Russian, while 69 percent have the same degree of fluency in Ukrainian.

That’s a result of history. When Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1919, Russian became the official language and Ukrainian was virtually outlawed. Ukrainian was declared the country’s official language only when it gained its independence in 1991.

Russian speakers are the majority in the eastern and southern regions of the country. In 2012, a law was approved to protect regional languages like Russian and Tatar for use in courts and certain government functions in parts of the country where speakers of these languages constituted at least 10 percent of the population.

That law was repealed Feb. 22 as one of the first acts by the Ukrainian Parliament after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich. That action was widely interpreted by Russian speakers as a step toward outlawing their language and isolating them from participation in their government. And it was this repeal that was most responsible for the pro-Russian demonstrations that erupted in Donetsk and other eastern cities that were quickly followed by the takeover of the Crimean Peninsula by Russian troops.

Many people familiar with both languages are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. The two are so similar that many Russians consider Ukrainian just a dialect of their own tongue. Both use the Cyrillic alphabet, although Ukrainian contains a few more letters. To the foreign ear, both languages when spoken sound the same. But of course, the conflict is not just about language, just as the fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast was not just about religion.

These conflicts are more about ethnic culture and traditions, old loyalties and prejudices, historic feuds, hatred and nostalgia. We will never understand this about Ukraine by listening to Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, simplistic summations by the media or political grandstanding in Washington, D.C. We have a better chance at understanding by listening to ordinary Ukrainians, and we hope to offer that opportunity to our readers in these pages and on through the correspondence of our friends and colleagues there. An eyewitness account of the fighting in Kiev by Olga Shestopalova on our editorial page two weeks ago was the start. Look for more in the coming weeks.



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