Just 3 days on from the epic final game, Ukraine’s Euro 2012 grace period appears to be over
President Yanukovych had been due to give a speech today extolling the virtues of Ukraine’s successful (broadly speaking) co-hosting of Euro 2012. The strategy was always to cash in on the feel good factor towards October’s parliamentary elections. On today’s evidence, that feel good factor will have long evaporated before then (don’t forget how quickly euphoria over the Orange Revolution died). The Party of Regions’ case for using Euro 2012 as a prop is not airtight. For a start, one can be pretty certain that the tournament would never have come this way were it not for the Orange Revolution and its pseudo-democrats. As a quick thought experiment, could one have imagined Poland offering to co-host the tournament with Belarus? Clearly not. The President has hinted at a snap election. Snap might very well be the word.
The President’s speech was pulled as the final reading of the bill on Russianal..., ahem, ‘regional’ languages got rather messy. Accusations of creative parliamentarianism in the timing of the vote sound plausible. Then Lytvyn, the Speaker, has chosen to resign (does he think his career will be over if he signs it?). Things got messy on the streets too. Tear gas was used and Klitschko is finding that the physical risks of being a politician in Ukraine are not so different from his old job. He’s spoken out against the new law, and that’s interesting when one considers that he is Russian-speaking and has been broadly pragmatic on some pro-Russian issues, such the Black Sea Fleet. There are calls on the President to veto the law and I’m not so sure he won’t. The law’s legitimacy is weak, but then all the laws passed since the advent of the ‘tushki’ are dubious and open to challenge. It is forgotten that the Orange parties are still the rightful owners of the list mandates until the next elections. It was the EU’s costly mistake not to haul up Yanukovych early on on that point.
If the law does finally get passed, the implications are uncertain. It’s possible that not much will change. The Russian language issue really only exists for two groups of people. For one group, it is those who were Russian language-educated during the Soviet period, and the older you get, the harder it is to learn new tricks. I’m all for some sensible pragmatism here. If someone is over the age of, say, 40, and genuinely struggles with Ukrainian, then cut them a little slack. Young people simply don’t have the same problems with Ukrainian, as they have grown up with both, so changing the law at this stage is like putting the limitations of the old on the young. When you look at the average age of Ukraine’s leading politicians, you can see why the limitations of the old might prevail here. The other group is that which feels that on principle, they should advocate Russian and oppose Ukrainian, because of identity, or just prejudice. From meeting a broad section of Ukrainian society, I have met such attitudes surprisingly rarely. One friend who lived in Donetsk for some time said that, whilst some had a negative attitude towards Ukrainian, many others said ‘it’s great that we have a national language, I just wish I could speak it’.
One other issue that’s been sidelined in the more serious mêlée is whether we really will see the other regional languages given full status. From living in Hungary for 3 years, I know that people there will be watching eagerly to see whether this raises the status of Hungarian in Zakarpattya. Will people in Uzhgorod really be able to have medical treatment, write university essays or even speak in the Verkhovna Rada in Hungarian? If they could, the situation would compare favourably with the treatment of the Hungarian minorities in other neighbouring countries, but it sounds implausible to me. And if they could, can Ukraine afford this?
I would favour a solution where perhaps Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, and possibly one or two others, could have Russian as official regional languages, with the requirement that Ukrainian language and literature be taught. Then there is Crimea, where I would advocate the promotion of two languages, but these being Russian and Tatar. I would like to see Tatar place names written on road signs and the like. If the graffiti cans then come out, so be it. Intolerance would be there for all to see and, hopefully, over time, questions asked. Another option would be to raise the minority threshold to 20%, that referred to in the European Charter on Minority Languages. The 10% threshold is what threatens to make Russian a de facto second state language.
Whatever happens, it’s worth remembering that, even if we conservatively say that Ukrainian has maybe 25 million speakers, that’s not small beer, and more speakers than that of many other languages in Europe. Ukrainian will always suffer from being linguistically close to a dominant language, like Scots to English or Catalan to Spanish. Ireland has an official language that only a tiny minority actually speak. Ukrainian has its work cut out, but it’s never best to rely on the government for such things. It’s up to people themselves to keep speaking it (speak it more in public!) and keep it alive. Use it or lose it!