Does a Language issue actually exist in Ukraine? Common misconceptions debunked

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Translation “One Country” in Ukrainian and Russian

Language has historically been the primary battleground around which nation building has been centred on in Ukraine. The conflict between Ukrainian and Russian speakers’ rights has often been inflated by competing political parties in order to gather support and votes during elections. It should be noted that a language divide does exist within Ukraine, however its active contribution towards the harbouring of societal divisions is greatly overplayed (Hrytsak, 2014). When focusing on nation building theory, a singular language is often needed to reinforce national unity and the stability of territorial and cultural integrity of a said nation state (Kulyk; Hromadske, 2017). Due to Ukraine’s inescapable colonial past, it should be recognised that the Russification that occurred during that period and the bilingualism that resulted from it, have remained ingrained in many areas. Thus, it is close to impossible to wholly remove such a legacy. Kuzio draws parallels to Ukraine with the prolonged use of English in Ireland, where this has also been the case (Kuzio & D’Anieri, 2002, 21).
A weak enforcement of the 1989 Language and 1998 Education Laws, alongside the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko Law of 2012, that granted minority languages greater recognition and usage in their regions, has meant that the official state language has not developed nationwide to the extent that it is unilaterally considered as an inextricable factor needed to identify with the Ukrainian nation. Government approaches have been lethargic. Such reserved attempts have allowed Russian to be used freely and remain prevalent in the majority of urban areas outside Western Ukraine. Ukrainian has remained respected but Russian has maintained its position as the primary communicator for prestigious fields such as the media, sport and the preferred language of the urban class (Kulyk, 2017, KP)
Due to the elevated position of Russian in Ukrainian society, it has created a contradictory situation where urban Ukrainians are frequented with a choice. They can either prioritise their national identity by utilizing the Ukrainian language and culture, or favour their economic and societal development which valorises their Russian equivalents (Kaspruk, 2017). Therefore, similarly to how the older working class favours its economic survival, the urban class has upheld the notion of prestige that the Russian language held during the USSR. The problem that arises from this is that whilst Ukrainian is the official state language, it is not treated as such and without a greater commitment to using a solitary language with greater consistency in the public sphere, means that Ukraine has greater difficulties in perceiving itself as an independent state separate from Russia.
Russia’s aggression and its calls to defend ‘Russian speakers’ led to an alienation of the Russian speakers who garnered no connection to Russian state despite their use of the language. It was primarily these actions from an external actor rather than the utilisation of government led policy that created the rise in national identification with the Ukrainian state. Some did renounce the Russian language as a result, but others remain resolute in continuing to use Russian for communicative purposes. Nevertheless, they simultaneously assert that they are patriotic and devoted to the perpetuation of Ukrainian statehood(Kulyk, 2016b, 91; Kulyk, 2017, KP). Even Russian commentators such as Trenin (2018) have conceded that Russian as a language has ceded its position as a political marker of identification. Therefore, the nation building process seems to be showing signs of cohesion arising from a bottom-up approach. Language, whilst divided, has become less divisive in nature due to the reduction in its politicization and by civil society identifying more greatly with the Ukrainian nation irrespective of linguistic preferences. This is most vividly illustrated on the frontline of the war in the Donbas. Russian speaking and Ukrainian speaking volunteers and conscripts originating from all regions of Ukraine have cooperated together bilingually, resulting in some success in repelling further occupation attempts of Ukrainian territory (Dickinson, 2017; Trenin, 2018).
Despite language seeming to be less of an issue in relation to the nation building process, Portnikov (2018) proposes that there still remains a need to continue the Ukrainization of the state in order to solidify separation from Russia and also to increase the competence and effectiveness of the state by being able to incorporate all citizens into a political body that can cooperate. Portnikov notes that this can be best facilitated through communicating in the same language. In Ukraine, this is highly problematic for its smaller more compactly settled ethnic minorities, namely Romanians and Hungarians, who are largely unversed in the official state tongue. This has resulted in these ethnicities remaining within their own small communities; essentially fostering their own ghettoization due to the lack of opportunities in the job market and political framework that arise from not knowing Ukrainian adequately (Kulyk; Hromadske, 2017). The current Ukrainian government has intended to rectify this through the imposition of a new law on education. It requires all state (public) education to be carried out solely in the Ukrainian language. These minority languages including that of Russian are permitted to be taught as supplementary secondary languages. However, the success of such a law rests in its implementation (Tulup, 2017). 
As Polese (2011, 47) explains, nation building success does not rely solely at the feet of the government but it is ultimately reliant on the ‘desire and capacity, by common people, to oppose or accommodate such a project.’ This is where the 1989 language law and the previous law on education of 1998 failed, with no comprehensive structure facilitating and overseeing the changes, it made their execution hard to control and measure. However, an education law alone is insufficient as has been demonstrated in the past. Without addressing the essential need for Ukrainian in larger socio economic life, such as the necessary requirement of it for public and private sector jobs, the progression of the Ukrainian language will not occur. The current administration remains hesitant to make any such radical upheavals, still trying to appease potentially hostile Russian speakers (Kulyk, 2017, KPHromadske, 2017).As Minich (2018) confirms, it is in fact the government that is holding back the nation building process in the language field. Using data from a survey conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, it is conclusive that whilst Ukrainians were previously deeply divided over the language and education debacle, in recent years there has been a significant increase in favour of Ukrainian as the primary language for education. 


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