The adoption of Ukrainian language by the citizens of Ukraine has emerged as an important aspect of Ukraine’s struggle for a sovereign nation. For centuries, the Ukrainian language has played second fiddle to the dominant Russian, thanks to the mighty influence of the Tsar empire and the Soviet Union. When Ukrainian language was declared as the official language of independent Ukraine in 1991, there was finally a hope that it would gain its rightful place as a National language of Ukraine. However, despite the enforcement of Ukrainian as the official language of the state, Russian continues to be very much prevalent in the country.
While Russian language is dominant in more urban areas, Ukrainian is spoken much more in the rural areas. The ongoing efforts to convince people into believing that the Russian speaking minority are being oppressed in the countryside. The other side of the language divide believes that the Ukrainian language is in far greater need for support from the state so it comes out of the shadow of Russian language.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a hallmark of this complex language war that has been breeding in Ukraine for a long time. Both the Kremlin and Putin justified the annexure of Crimea, citing the need to defend the Russian speaking minority of Ukraine.
The language war has been Russia’s biggest tool in disrupting Ukraine. This was made clear when a United Nations Security Council meeting held on 16th July,2019 regarding Ukraine’s move to make Ukrainian their official language, became a heated argument between Russia and the West. While Russia made clear that they were defending the Russian speaking minority in Ukraine while respecting the official language of the state, the US, backed by its allies like France and Britain employed the meeting to demand an end to the Russian occupation of Crimea.
It was not a surprise at all when the Language Law was passed in 2019, intending to increase the influence of Ukrainian in the society, especially in spheres like media and public services. The language law states that Ukrainian shall be mandatory for all official purposes pertaining to the state as well as international treaties. This law appears to be in line with the broader public opinion. As per a poll conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center in December 2019, 69% of Ukrainians were in favor of Ukrainian being the official language of the state, while maintaining the freedom to use Russian in daily life.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was a supporter of the law that was passed on May 15th, 2019. However, Volodymyr Zelenskiy who was elected Ukraine’s president on May 20, 2019, has described the law as a set of “prohibitions and punishments” citing that it will complicate bureaucratic procedures and increase the number of officials rather than decreasing it.
Ukraine, it seems, is emerging from the perils of the language war and looks to adopt a bilingual approach for dealing with the language challenge. For instance, Russian speaking Ukrainians have been central in Ukraine’s resistance to the Russia backed insurgents in Eastern region of Ukraine . The election of a Jewish Russian-speaker, Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Ukraine’s sixth president in 2019 is seen by many Ukrainians as a positive step for the country’s politics of language.
Despite all the progress, however, the language war continues to be a sensitive issue in Ukraine. A Ukranian social media user on 11th June 2020 posted an English and Ukrainian bilingual McDonalds' menu, which implied that Russian language is removed from the menu. The post became viral soon and was picked up by a pro-Kremlin politician and social media star Anatoliv Shariy, who claimed that the menu reflected on the negative attitude towards the Russian speaking Ukrainians. McDonald's issued a statement clarifying that Russian language option was never present in its menu anywhere in Ukraine, but the damage had been done.
It seems that the saga of using language for political gains will keep on running in Ukrainian as both sides on the partisan divide are progressively entrenching their respective positions.