In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, language has come forth as a political tool which can be used to assert positions and show support for a specific party. The situation turned so after Russian President Vladimir Putin stated Russia would deploy military troops in Crimea to protect the rights of all Russian speakers living in the area.
Background: Dropping Language Laws
Last month, the new government decided to drop a law enacted in 2010 granting Russian the position of second official language in certain parts of Ukraine. The measure stirred up public opinion, with Russian speakers reacting against it. Eventually, the law was kept because dropping it was seen to go against Russians humanitarian rights.
The Military to Protect the Language
When Russian troops rushed into Crimea on March 2, language was made one of the reasons behind the move. Putin himself justified the use of military force in Ukraine by saying that Russia was trying to protect the interests of all Russian speakers in the country.
The choice between Russian and Ukrainian has since become a highly political one. Ukrainian sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina stated that language has become a clear signal used to identify oneself as part of the pro-European or pro-Russian group. Members of the Regions Party, to which ousted president Viktor Yanukovych belonged, tend to speak only Russian. The icon of the opposition, Yulia Tymoshenko, who is originally a Russian speaker, now refuses to speak Russian even to Russian interviewers. Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) movement, also refuses to communicate in the Russian language.
The Linguistic Scenario
More than half of the population’s mother tongue is Ukrainian, which is, like Russian itself, an eastern Slavic language. Around 30 per cent of the population speak Russian as their first language. These two spheres of speakers have traditionally been distributed in an orderly manner based on the proximity of the country to its Russian neighbour: The west of the country has long been mostly a Ukrainian speaking area and the east and south have been mostly Russian speaking.
In spite of this division, most Ukrainians are bilingual and have the ability to switch back and forth between the two languages. Everyday life, institutions and even the media make use of both languages interchangeably. Of the total of Ukrainian citizens, only one percent of the population does not understand Ukrainian, and even those living in the east and south of the country are being raised as native Ukrainian speakers today.