RFE/RL on language policies in Ukraine

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Subject: RFE/RL on language policies in Ukraine 

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RFE/RL on language policies in Ukraine 

RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report
Vol. 3, No. 35, 18 September 2001
A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the
Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team


Russian-language schools in Ukraine over the last decade has prompted
ethnic Russian groups there to protest what they see as a policy
designed to promote the assimilation of ethnic Russians into the
Ukrainian nation.

Three ethnic Russian groups in Ukraine - the Russian Movement of
Ukraine, the Russian-Ukrainian Union, and For A Single Rus - have
announced plans to picket the Ukrainian Education Ministry because of
what they say is Kyiv's policy of "liquidating Russian-language
education in Ukraine and [promoting] the assimilation of Russians and
Russian-language citizens."

According to a press release issued by the Russian Movement of
Ukraine, the Ukrainian government over the last decade has changed the
language of instruction in 1,300 schools from Russian to Ukrainian. As
a result, the press release said, only 10 percent of the schools in
the country are now conducted in Russian even though "not less than
half of the population considers Russian to be its native language."

The Russian Movement said that this shift is taking place despite the
wishes of parents and that written appeals to the education
authorities have not produced any results. The group said that it will
now engage in picketing government offices and other forms of protest
in order to attract attention to this issue.

In most of the post-Soviet communist countries, questions concerning
the language of instruction are among the most sensitive and
contentious of all public issues. On the one hand, anything that
touches the lives of children and their futures is something adults
are likely to take seriously. And on the other hand, the debates
taking place now reflect the continuing shadow of Soviet-era policies.
But nowhere are these discussions more difficult than in Ukraine.

During the Soviet period, Moscow allowed union republics to have
schools in their own national languages but promoted the use of
Russian as the language of instruction both where there were sizable
numbers of ethnic Russians and where parents could be persuaded that
learning the language of what was called "interethnic communication"
would give their children a better chance in their future professional

In Ukraine, both of these groups were numerous. By 1989, the date of
the last Soviet census, ethnic Russians constituted more than 20
percent of the population of Ukraine. And many Ukrainians, whose
language is closely related to Russian, accepted happily or not that
having their children go to Russian-language schools was

But with the end of the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians, like their
counterparts in other post-Soviet republics, decided that they could
and should promote their national language as part of their general
effort at nation- and state-building. Indeed, many of them felt that
changing over to Ukrainian was almost a patriotic duty.

Such attitudes became even more widespread as Ukrainians recognized
that the Russian Federation where millions of Ukrainians live - the
exact number is a matter of dispute - did not in the past and has not
now provided any Ukrainian-language schools for its citizens. And many
Ukrainians were upset that international bodies that regularly urged
Ukraine to keep Russian-language schools never demanded that Russia
open Ukrainian-language ones.

Kyiv's gradual shift in the language of instruction from Russian to
Ukrainian in many schools is widely popular among Ukrainians. But not
surprisingly, it is generating a backlash among ethnic Russians and
among those Ukrainians who grew up speaking Russian. As a result,
Ukraine now finds itself caught between Ukrainians who want their
children to speak Ukrainian and ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians
who want their children to speak Russian.

The picketing announced by the three Russian groups in Ukraine is
unlikely to change anyone's mind. But it will certainly call attention
to a political issue that is far from resolved, one that may
ultimately be more important than economics or geopolitics in
determining Ukraine's future.
(RFE/RL Director of Communications Paul Goble wrote this report.)

Copyright (c) 2001. RFE/RL, Inc. All rights reserved.
"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan
Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by
"RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed
every Tuesday.
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