2014-01-08-kulykMichael Moser. Language Policy and the Discourse on Languages in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych (25 February 2010 - 28 October 2012). Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag, 2013.  

Unlike previous books by Austrian linguist Michael Moser, this one deals not with language per se but with policies regarding language. It examines words and deeds of Ukrainian politicians and officials allied with President Victor Yanukovych in one of the most controversial domains of his regime’s activities, namely the elevation of the legal status of the Russian language and expansion of its use in various public practices. Moser’s detailed account deals with a specific period indicated in the title of the book: from Yanukovych’s assumption of the presidential office in February 2010 to the parliamentary election of October 2012 which the President and his allies arguably had in mind when choosing their strategy in language policy. Simply put, the book is about how the new regime passed a law shifting the balance of Ukraine’s language policies toward the greater role of Russian.  

      Prior to an examination of specific policies of the Yanukovych period, Chapter 1 presents a background description of the Ukrainian sociolinguistic situation, that is, the use of various languages in various domains and citizens’ language attitudes and policy preferences. The author correctly notes that the most frequently used data on the linguistic composition of society, namely the census returns on “native language” does not in the Ukrainian case indicate actual language use since millions of people speak Russian but consider themselves Ukrainian and, accordingly, declare Ukrainian their ridna mova (or rodnoi iazyk, since many such declarations are made in Russian). A legacy of the Soviet nationalities policy, this discrepancy between ethnocultural identity and language practice persists in independent Ukraine whose policies encourage citizens to identify with the titular nation and, by extension, its eponymous language but do not force or, indeed, help them use that language in everyday life. 

      In contrast to some Ukrainian and Western scholars, Moser does not discard native language data as irrelevant in view of its incongruence with actual language use but points out that legal statuses based on the former kind of data should be corrected in view of the latter. That is, given its wide spread in many regions and social domains, often to the point of the marginalization of Ukrainian, Russian should not be treated as a minority language. In fact, this is exactly what proponents of the elevation of its status call for but, Moser argues, they suggest an inadequate way of correcting the inadequate legal situation, namely by granting Russian the status as one of the so-called regional languages, allegedly in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This Charter and its applicability to Ukraine is the topic of Chapter 2. Moser believes that Russian in Ukraine should not be protected by the Charter which primarily aims at preventing further marginalization and eventual extinction of lesser-used languages. Given its widespread use in Ukrainian society, Russian is anything but marginal and thus, Moser concludes, in no need of protection by the Charter or, indeed, any other legal instrument. It is certainly reasonable to question the appropriateness of the diversity-oriented Charter to a language whose prevalence contributes to further marginalization of other languages. However, a no less legitimate question is whether the state should look for other legal means of overcoming an obvious discrepancy between the social functions of Russian and its legal status, all the more so because this discrepancy means a limitation of legitimate uses of the language and, therefore, of its speakers’ recognized rights. 

      This question, however, is not raised in the book. Strongly convinced that “the Russian language has never been under threat in Ukraine, but on the contrary tends to threaten the vitality of the Ukrainian language as well as other languages of Ukraine” (p. 36), Moser proceeds in the following chapters to a critical examination of statements and actions of those who believe (or at least publicly argue) otherwise. Chapter 3 introduces this examination by focusing on Viktor Yanukovych whose ascension to presidency gave the champions of Russian an opportunity to have their preferences implemented in legal norms and administrative regulations. In addition to the President’s language-related steps and statements, Moser pays close attention to his activities in other domains such as foreign policy and collective memory. Such a distraction, one may surmise, is intended to place Yanukovych’s language policy into the context of the supposedly similar turns in other ideologically sensitive domains. Chapter 4 extends this suggested context to the Russian government’s policy regarding its “compatriots” in the post-Soviet states and its treatment of ethnic Ukrainians in Russia itself, two topics whose relation to the Ukrainian language policy the author does not explain (perhaps assuming that it is obvious). Such contextualization implicitly presents the support of the Russian language in Ukraine as part of policies aimed at drawing Ukraine closer to Russia. To be sure, for many elites (and their rank-and-file supporters) in both countries it is indeed the case but to view such relation as definitive is to deny purely domestic reasons for the promotion of Russian in Ukraine, be it concern about Russophone citizens’ rights or preoccupation with winning their votes in the future elections. By this implicit denial, the Western author allies with the Ukrainian opponents of the Yanukovych regime who denounce its language policy as not only pro-Russophone but also pro-Russian, serving the Kremlin’s interests.

      Chapters 5 to 7 deal with three prominent figures of Yanukovych’s “camp” who have played an important role in shaping and propagating the regime’s language policy in particular domains. MP Vadym Kolesnichenko, a co-author and active promoter of a new language law that raised the status of Russian is portrayed as a “hawk” branding himself as a champion of human rights and linguistic tolerance but in fact promoting the dominance of the Russian language in Ukraine and the Russia-led integration of the post-Soviet space (Russkii Mir). Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnyk appears to be a no less zealous promoter of Russian at all levels of education, sparing no effort to diminish the role of Ukrainian. Finally, MP Olena Bondarenko is presented as playing a similar role in policy-making with regard to the electronic media. Together with the two previous chapters, these three accounts of the supposedly Russification-oriented contributions show how much the Yanukovych regime changed language policy even before it managed to change the language law. There is no doubt that these (and many other) figures of the current regime are preoccupied with reversing the Ukrainianization course of Yanukovych’s predecessor Viktor Yushchenko. However, the focus on their promotion of the Russian language precludes an analysis of the reasons for the continued prevalence of Ukrainian in many social domains (including education and broadcasting), a problem that deserves scholarly attention no less than the not-so-drastic changes in favor of Russian.

      Having examined changes in language policies within the legislative framework that the Yanukovych regime inherited from its predecessors, Moser devotes three final chapters to attempts at revising it, from the first draft of the language law submitted in September 2010 to the entering into force of a somewhat revised bill two years later. He discusses in detail the consecutive versions of the draft law which were submitted by various deputies of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and its coalition partners, criticism they evoked in Ukraine and from international organizations such as the Venice Commission and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, and all stages of the drafts’ consideration by the Verkhovna Rada. He emphasizes the inadequacy of all drafts as means of regulating the language domain in Ukraine, first and foremost due to their preoccupation with the expansion of the legitimate use of the Russian language which inevitably undermines the role of Ukrainian as the main language of the public domain (a role that Moser, together with many politicians and experts in Ukraine, considers a precondition of genuine bilingualism in society). His account shows that the European organizations asked to express their opinion of the drafts pointed to their numerous drawbacks, in particular the excessive priority of Russian over the language of other minorities and the insufficient protection of the still fragile position of Ukrainian. These drawbacks, however, were not duly corrected until the very last draft which the regime decided to push through, in a fragrant violation of the parliamentary procedure. While much attention is paid to the drafts and their perception by relevant actors, Moser does not unfortunately inquire about the political situation that precluded the adoption of one of the early drafts or their more radical revision in response to the domestic and international criticism. Nor does he examine language policy activities of the opposition parties, those with origins in the Orange camp, so it may seem that all they did was try to block the regime’s drafts. Whether or not this was intended, such placement exempts the current opposition parties from an equally critical examination of their role in the recent unfortunate turn of language policy or, no less important, in its long-term stagnation before Yanukovych when the pro-Ukrainianization parties hardly made an effort to adopt a law that would alleviate the Russian-speakers’ discontent without undermining the key role of the titular language.

      More generally, the book provides a detailed account of what but little discussion of why. Already in the sociolinguistic background, the author presents in exceeding detail various census, survey and statistic figures rather than discussing fine distinctions between them. When dealing with draft laws and their expert assessments, he prefers long quotes to an analysis of their meaning and implications. This preference is particularly noticeable in Chapter 2 where full eight pages are allotted to the text of key articles of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, with italics indicating which parts were not ratified by Ukraine, while there is virtually no discussion of why these parts were excluded and others accepted as the state’s obligations. Moser’s focus on describing particular developments (political statements, draft laws, parliamentary votes) rather than analyzing their direct and more distant reasons and effects manifests itself in a paradoxical combination, strikingly different from those of most Western scholars dealing with Ukraine, of his superb knowledge of primary sources in Ukrainian and Russian and a lack of engagement with academic works in English. When other scholars follow him with a more analytical approach, they will have a solid empirical foundation for their work.  

      First published in: Ab Imperio. 2013. No. 3.

      We are grateful to the Ab Imperio Editors for the permission to reprint this review. 

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